Productivity - Success

The Power of Positive Pessimism

Winners drink from both

Which of these teams would you rather be on?

The first is famous for taking on highly dangerous and seemingly impossible challenges. Its individual members are known for their high self-confidence, tough-mindedness, and indomitable wills. They are the ultimate can-do optimists.

The other team obsesses about planning; they envision everything that can possibly go wrong, they build in as much room for error as possible before they try anything, and they do everything they can to stack the odds in their favor before acting. Call them the ultimate pessimists.

Most people, especially readers of this blog, would choose the first. After all, optimism is practically a religion in America. The idea of a positive mental attitude has become so ingrained in American thinking that it verges on political incorrectness to question it. You can never win an argument with someone who says that you can do anything you set your mind to, because they take it on faith. A positive attitude is often based on faith and emotion, and anyone who points out practical deficiencies and obstacles is seen as lacking in the right stuff.

But when you take a closer look at what the experts say about it, the picture that emerges is a bit more complicated. In fact, the descriptions above both describe the same team: US Navy SEALs. It turns out that optimism and pessimism are not polar opposites—they can coexist in the same person or team at the same time, and the right mixture at the right time can be critical to your success.

Optimism and pessimism are not opposite ends of a spectrum. They can coexist in the same person at the same time

In The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Julie K. Norem tells us that optimism and pessimism are not actually opposites, as two points on a straight line. Think of each characteristic as being at right angles to each other, as in each axis of a graph. In this way, it’s possible to understand that high (or low) levels of both optimism and pessimism can coexist in one person at the same time.

Combine these two attributes, and you’re at the top right of the scale. You have big-picture optimism, but fine-detailed pessimism. You have high confidence not because you ignore the dangers, but precisely because you acknowledge and respect them, and then do everything possible to avert, mitigate, or deal with them. And because you’ve thought about them, your mind is better prepared because you’ve probably mentally rehearsed the situation already. Norem calls this defensive pessimism, but I prefer the term positive pessimism.

The right mixture at the right time can be critical to your success

If you think of a competition or major undertaking as a process, there are three distinct phases. The first is the decision whether to play. The second is the preparation. The third is the actual performance.

Whether to play: You have to be optimistic to take on the challenge.

Most people will not undertake something challenging unless they think they have a chance of succeeding. Po Bronson in his book, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, tells us that optimists lose more often, for two reasons. First, they take greater risks, and second, they are much less realistic in assessing their own abilities. (Which is one reason you see people make complete idiots of themselves on shows like American Idol.) But optimists also win more, because they compete more often, which is why an unknown long-shot from Illinois to run for president and actually win.[1]

Yet at this stage some negative thinking can also help. Negative thinking is about realizing that it’s not true that you can do anything you set your mind to. Accepting your limitations frees you to focus on the things you can do, and developing those strengths you do have. A positive thinker will take a bad shot in hopes of making it; a negative thinker will help the team by passing to someone who is open or who has a better chance of making it. A coach, or any other leader, will work with the limitations of his individuals to form a better team.

Pessimism and negative thinking during the preparation phase can increase your chances for success.

Bobby Knight, in his book, The Power of Negative Thinking, makes a strong case to counterbalance the idea that you should always be positive. Although the common wisdom tells us that you can’t be a winner without positive thinking, Knight’s lifetime winning record in NCAA basketball history, adds weight to his views.

One of Knight’s themes is that determination and a positive attitude are no substitute for hard work, preparation, and planning. He quite correctly attacks the “don’t worry, be happy” school of success. He tells us that in his experience more most basketball games are not won, they are lost. In other words, mistakes do more to determine the loser than positive thinking and desire and will to win determine the winner.

Negative thinking is similar to Andy Grove’s philosophy that only the paranoid survive. It’s about being fully aware of all the things that could go wrong, and then preparing so that they don’t, or so that you can overcome them when they do happen.

Ironically, when pessimists do their job right, no one notices. Heidi Grant Halvorson tells the story of the Mars Climate Orbiter which missed its target by 100 kilometers, costing NASA $125 million. The fault was traced to a unit conversion error: the NASA engineers worked in metric and the Lockheed Martin worked in English units. Potential errors such as this are caught all the time by people who pay close attention, but “No one says ‘Way to convert those units from inches to centimeters, Bob.  You just saved us $125 million dollars and a boatload of humiliation.  You rock!’”[2]

During the “game”, it pays to think positive. Playing not to lose can actually decrease your chances of winning.

Once all the preparation is over and you’re in the arena, it’s time to trust your training and preparation and focus all out on the positive aim of winning.

As Bronson says, “The hallmark characteristics of playing to win are an intensification of effort and continuous risk taking. The equivalent for playing not to lose is conservatism and trying to avoid costly mistakes. Under intense pressure, though, having a strategy of avoiding mistakes leads, by itself, to more mistakes. This is the paradox of playing not to lose.”

As evidence, he cites these extraordinary statistics from professional soccer matches that end in penalty kicks to determine the winner. In soccer, the true odds of making a penalty kick are 85%. Yet, when kickers are in the position where their kick will win the match, they make it 92% of the time. When they have to make the last kick to avoid a loss, they make it 62% of the time.

Positive pessimism is not an oxymoron—it’s a highly adaptive, effective and professional response to difficulty and risk. Positive pessimism does not let anxiety prevent action—it harnesses anxiety to produce positive action, when it’s applied at the right time.


[1] I’m referring to Lincoln, of course. Who did you think I meant?

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Book reviews - Productivity

Practice Perfect

Having trained salespeople for twenty years, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about effective training. But having read Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway and Katie Yezzi, I also realize that I can further help my students and my clients by taking some of my training sessions up to a whole new level.

By now it’s well-known that the most important factor in mastery of a skill is thousands of hours of practice. Taking this idea one step further, what you need to consistently get better is deliberate practice, which is about repeatedly identifying specific areas that need improvement, practicing to get to a certain standard, getting immediate feedback and then practicing again until you get it right. This book takes the idea of deliberate practice one step further, by showing specifically how to isolate the key areas that need improvement, how to practice, and how to give and receive feedback. It’s organized into 42 rules for “getting better at getting better”.

The key theme of the book is that practice does not make perfect—it makes permanent. If you practice the right things wrong, or the wrong things right, you will permanently encode substandard performance. In other words, practicing the same thing over and over in the wrong way will only make you better at doing it wrong. Or, if you practice the wrong skill, you will get very good at something that will not contribute to your success. So, you first have to figure out what to practice by analyzing the domain you want to succeed in and then identify and prioritize the key skills that will have the greatest impact. Then, devise the proper drills to practice to a measurable standard so that you can encode success.

I judge if a book is worth reading by how many useful and immediately practical ideas I take from it, and Practice Perfect has given me at least a dozen. In a general sense, I plan to incorporate less scrimmaging and more drilling into the skills portions of my training sessions. For example, sales training teaches a variety of skills and then usually culminates in a realistic role play or presentation, after which participants are critiqued and then sent on their way. The problem with realistic training is that each new skill may only be practiced once, if at all. Drilling is intended to be unrealistic, so that it can provide multiple concentrated opportunities to practice each skill. As the authors say, use scrimmaging to assess, and drilling to improve.

While this may sound like common sense, it can actually be hard to sell to potential clients. In a tough economy everyone is justifiably tight with their training dollars and time spent away from the field, so they try to cram as much into shorter training sessions as they possibly can. The question that must be answered by sales executives or training professionals is: is it better to learn a lot of things imperfectly, or a few critical things perfectly?

One way out of that conundrum, as the authors note, is to plan training sessions meticulously, in order to get as much possible effectiveness out of every single minute. They note that in the NFL it has now become common to have “pre-game” meetings to prepare for practices, and that review of practice tapes is as important as game tapes. This idea is actually amazingly easy to follow even for full-time professionals who don’t have the luxury of much dedicated practice time. Almost everyone carries a tablet device or smartphone that takes video, and imagine how your skill level could improve if you would rehearse a sales presentation or questioning sequence before an important sales call.

Another way out of the conundrum is to provide a proper framework and standard for the most important skills and then help managers institutionalize the practice of practice within their organizations. In today’s fiercely competitive war for talent, it may be better to have a strong culture of practice and then hire for coachability and willingness to learn, as opposed to demonstrated skill.

The authors are education experts and have developed their techniques and rules for training classroom teachers, but they also weave in plenty of examples from sports[1] and business, and make it very clear that the ideas and techniques are universal to the proper learning of a skill. The first half of the book is devoted to individual skill improvement, and the second half offers practical advice for institutionalizing perfect practice within the organization.

Whether you are an executive seeking ways to improve the performance of your employees, Little League coach on the weekends, or a motivated self-learner, Practice Perfect is the book for you.


[1] In fact, it appears that the legendary basketball coach John Wooden is their patron saint, and you could certainly do worse than that in a book about practice.

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Productivity - Success

Why Don’t You Just Do It?

My friend Bob Terson just wrote a blog post about the difficulty he had trying to buy a bicycle at Toys R Us for his grandson. The bike they wanted was not in stock, they would not sell them the floor model, and they could not figure out a simple way to get one from another store. The funny thing is that none of what he was asking the store to do was really that difficult, and I suspect that they knew exactly what had to be done—yet they could not just do it.

Billions of words are written every year about business and personal productivity; I’ve added my part, but I would be the first to admit that very little is a breakthrough that readers don’t already know about. There are only so many things you can say about being customer-focused, and about giving lower level employees the power to make decisions that make sense for the customer at that specific time, yet the gap between knowing what to do and doing it is as vast as ever.

Is there a salesperson left that does not know it’s important to understand your customer’s business, or to ask questions and listen, or to prepare for sales calls? How many actually do it?

It’s kind of like diet books: thousands of new titles come out every year, each claiming that this time it’s really something new and different, and Americans get fatter every year. More knowledge does not automatically translate into results.

Think of it: if people just read one book on dieting and managed to consume fewer calories than they burn, or actually just did what the motivational speaker told them to do, two multi-billion dollar industries would cease to exist overnight.

I’m definitely a big fan of knowledge, don’t get me wrong. But the problem with learning new stuff is that, if you don’t have the time or motivation to implement the basics, why would you do any better with the new stuff? Along those lines, here’s a quote by a Ranger Command Sergeant Major: “It’s still the basics that makes us who we are, hooah. We don’t do anything that the regular Army doesn’t do. We just do it better.”[1]

At this point in my typical article, I’ve laid out the problem and the next step is to make suggestions for what you can do about it. But I’m going to skip the second step.

You already know what to do. Just do it.



[1] From Sua Sponte: The Forging of a Modern American Ranger, by Dick Couch.

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How Occasional Cheating Can Help Instill a Habit

I will be perfectly open about the ulterior purpose of this blog post: I’m cheating a little bit so that I can maintain my streak of writing a blog post every work day.

In the interests of strengthening my writing habit and to pump up my presence in social media, I last month resolved to make a big leap from 1-2 blog posts a week to 5, or one every work day. So far, this is my 23rd in a row—but it has not come easy.

The common wisdom is that it takes seven days to make a habit permanent. I’ve never found this to be true for myself. To me, the two most crucial times for a habit are the first day and the fourth week. The first day is critical because you have to start some time. How many times have you procrastinated on starting something you really wanted to do, to the point that you never got started at all? Once I start, initial enthusiasm easily carries me through the first seven days and beyond.

If that enthusiasm can carry you all the way to the point where your new activity is solidly entrenched as a habit, you’ve got it made. But old ways die hard, and enthusiasm may run out before habit kicks in. Sometimes you have to find a way to straddle that gap, and that’s where cheating comes in. By cheating, I mean doing the minimum that technically meets your goal. Let’s say you’ve decided to exercise every day, but maybe you’re under the weather and don’t feel like dragging yourself to the gym: why not do a set of push-ups or sit-ups at home? It will only take a minute or two, and it’s only a small fraction of a full workout, but it’s an infinite multiple of nothing.

Sometimes, you might even find that the little bit you do is enough to overcome inertia and then you keep going. That’s actually what has happened with this post. I thought of the topic this morning only after this sequence of steps:

  1. I have no idea what to write about today.
  2. I go through my list of ideas that I’ve stored, but find all kinds of reasons against each one.
  3. I think it may not be so bad to miss a day; maybe it was a dumb idea anyway.
  4. I remember that I use the cheating trick with my workouts, and try to decide how I can apply it here.
  5. I’m not quite sure how this ties in to persuasive communication, sales, or clear thinking, but I figure it’s close enough.
  6. I begin this article, hoping I can get out a paragraph or two.
  7. Once I get this far, I’m actually starting to get into it, so I start digging a little further…

Charles Duhigg, in his excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, explains that habits are created by a “habit loop” of cue-routine-reward. The cure is the trigger that fires the routine. It may be the running shoes at the foot of your bed, or the pack of cigarettes on the counter. As silly as it may sound, the empty check box at the top of my daily to-do list is my cue, and it works. The routine is the hard part, of course, especially when the reward is not something tangible. I find the feeling of accomplishment to be reward enough, and that apparently is extremely common. 67% of people who exercise regularly cite that feeling as their primary reward.

I wrote previously about personal kaizen, and it’s great to constantly improve a little every day. But some days it’s victory enough not to regress, even if you have to cheat a little to win. Of course, I’m not advocating cheating every time, because all that will instill is a habit of mediocrity. But keep in mind that you can’t win the game unless you’re in it.

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