Is Positive Thinking Positively Bad for You?

Time has to speed up doesn’t it? How else can we explain the phenomenon we all know: ‘how can it possibly be two weeks since I was on holiday?’

But, sadly, it is. The shops are full of ominous ‘back to school’ signs; football season has started (badly); and the long, light nights are gone for another year. You may think I’m sounding reflective, and you’d be right. I’m still thinking about the holiday – and specifically, about an article I read in a golf magazine I managed to smuggle into the luggage when my wife wasn’t looking.

It was written by Karl Morris of and was about differentiating between positive thinking and positive actions.

I think this is fascinating ground for the entrepreneur – are we in long term, positive thinking mode, dealing with planning and strategy, or are we concerned with the short term and positive actions: the simple business of ‘getting to yes?’

Golf’s a great analogy here: when I started playing I thought ‘long term’ – and I couldn’t have been more positive. Today’s the day. Sun shining. Ball with run on the fairway. Good session at the driving range. Putter working. Under 90 for the first time in my life…

And of course, I’d duff my first drive into the thick stuff, hack it out, chip into a bunker, two shots to get out, three putt. And after one hole my chances of going under 90 had gone. And I’d been so positive, so optimistic – which made the disappointment even worse. The rest of the round was ruined. ‘A good walk spoiled,’ as Harry Leon Wilson – no, not Mark Twain – famously said.

Eventually it dawned on me that while the sun may be shining and the fairways like greased lightning, none of that mattered in my quest to beat 90. When I stepped onto the first tee, I had one job, and one job only. That was to hit my drive a reasonable distance into the middle of the fairway.

Nothing else mattered. The second shot didn’t matter: neither did the putting, nor the bunker on the 7th hole…

This is the point that Karl Morris makes in his article. He’s writing about Rory McIlroy (a golfer with a connection to Ireland, which is where our similarities end…)

Early on in McIlroy’s career there was plenty of positive thinking – from player and pundits alike – but there was a nasty tendency for the wheels to fall off, most famously in the 2011 Masters. Karl Morris made the point:

One of the most important skills in golf is dealing with setbacks and positive thinking doesn’t prepare you for that. In fact, it does the opposite, by making you feel the setback more keenly. When a positive forecast doesn’t come off, you’ll be in danger of throwing the rest of the day – or round – away. Commit to carrying out a series of positive actions, and keep doing it whatever the outcomes. That commitment helps you dig in and get something positive out of the day.

Back to the office. And I think you can replace ‘golf’ with ‘business’ and all the above holds good. Clearly the entrepreneur is interested in both the long term and the short term: positive thinking and positive actions. There has to be a long term plan in place, but it can only be realised through a series of short term wins.

self-help graphic

This is one of the fundamental facts of business. You never get a day that is 100% good or 100% bad. But if the morning is bad, keep acting positively and the afternoon will be good.

Someone once said to me, “I was too busy looking at the mountain top to take the necessary steps to get there.” That’s the problem in a nutshell: we all need a vision of what we want for ourselves and our family. But positive thinking alone won’t make it happen – as my early rounds of golf testify, positive thinking will only deepen the disappointment when it doesn’t happen.

Success comes from a daily commitment to positive actions – and the determination to repeat those positive actions, even if the first two or three don’t give you the result you want. If the day starts badly it’s far too easy to start dreaming of the mountain top: everything will be fine, you’ll get there one day.

Don’t give in to temptation – and remember the words of that well-known CEO, Buddha:

Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind in the present moment.


One comment

  1. simonjhudson · August 23, 2016

    Very good. A former boss of mine often commented that there is no short-term without the long time term, but equally no long-term without the short-term. It’s very easy to spend all your time planning, putting in place contingencies for the plan and building business cases, instead of getting on with the tasks beneath your feet (I just made “up tasks beneath your feet” and I like it). Of course you need a plan, but plans are there to give you a general direction ands let you know when you are drifting wildly off course.
    I like to use the many hills analogy… I know my destination is over there, beyond the hills, but I can neither see it, nor plot the exact route to get there; so I walk to the top of the nearest hill – a relatively easy task that takes me in the right direction for my goal and gives me a sense of achievement when I arrive. From the top of the hill I still can’t see why exact destination but I can plot the best route to the next hill and so forth. I can always correct or change my journey as I go.

    And as for golf, the best round I ever had (98, I’m not as good as you) was when I forgot about the golf, forgot about the score and simply enjoyed each stroke as I made it.

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