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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Perils of Positive Thinking, or Why I'd Rather Be a Curmudgeon

In the RSAnimate video Smile or Die, acclaimed journalist, author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the darker side of positive thinking. Obviously, this appealed to Curmudgeon-Lynne. While watching, all I could do was nod, wipe away an occasional tear, some of happiness knowing I'm not the only one who sees through the smoke-and-mirrors of "happy-happy-joy-joy" and others of sheer terror at how far we (the majority of the American people) have been led down the garden path with this happy-horseshit.

At one point in my life, I was a pretty optimistic person.

Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration. At one point, I was naive and even then, I was a realist and had pretty strong critical thinking skills that led me to question and analyze the world around me. It usually didn't stack up to the bill of goods being sold. When it did, it made me very happy. That hits the high points of my optimism.

The video focuses on happy culture in the corporate world, where being a team player and cheerleader trumps knowledge or skills. As I discovered when I went to work for the federal government, it's equally true there. Early on in my tenure as a fed, I was assigned a project overseeing a contractor's progress and ultimate product. It became apparent in short order that there was little (no) progress being made. So, I pointed that out. A few times. Until finally, some scraps of nothing-substantial were submitted. I could've done the same in 30-minutes. Only my work wouldn't have had the typos, poor grammar, or misused words. I pointed out the flaws.

For that, the contractor got more money (because obviously the reason for the shoddy work was their initial inadequate bid, so more $$ would fix it, right?), renewed contracts, and an apology for my tactlessness. I ended up doing the majority of the work (rework), and got sent to "Dale Carnegie," also known as "a total waste of time learning to be a peppy cheerleader for mediocrity". If you aren't familiar with him, Dale Carnegie (he of the "people with mental disorders just need to think positive, happy thoughts" philosophy - seriously, it's in the books they give you to read) was one of the robber barons who made his millions by taking brutal advantage of cheap and abundant labor, only to later be called a "philanthropist" when he used a small fraction of his wealth to build some libraries. The Dale Carnegie course consists of learning how to never say anything that might offend anyone. Ever. Even if they need it. Even if it will help overall productivity and morale to lay the cards on the table so everyone can get to work fixing what doesn't work.
God forbid we should do that. Someone (the idiots who everyone else has to work harder for to carry their weight) might be upset. Brings to mind Nero and Rome. Not a happy time for the Romans, but I'm sure Nero was enjoying the music.

I was one of the lucky ones, however. I've had a few supervisors who value substance more, or at least equally, to form. When I gave my honest assessment of what a waste of money the course was (want to improve my attitude for the same amount of money? Send me on a paid vacation), he stopped sending others.

Prior to and after my life as a fed, I'd worked in private industries both big and small, local government, nonprofits, and academia. I've seen that same "positive" model played out in all of those, all striving to keep an amicable, happy work environment, where top management can retreat to their boardroom meetings, hold hands, and sing Kumbyah because life is so good and isn't everything peachy-keen?

The one place where that brainwashing, tuck our problems away, don't air dirty laundry, don't even acknowledge it's in the hamper attitude isn't so prevalent is in small businesses, where workers become like families, so are willing to argue and fight and occasionally call one another a horse's ass when the situation warrants. That gives me hope that we aren't entirely doomed to a death spiral of happiness and positive thinking. There are still bastions of reality in the workplace. That is my happy thought, my positive thinking that I hold on to and that gives me hope that there are others like me out there. Enough of us to prevent a total meltdown due to sheer ignorant bliss.

I won't go into more detail on the video other than to say, if your inner-curmudgeon needs a reassuring pat that it's okay, there's nothing wrong with a dose of reality, watch this. If you worry about those who embrace misperception as reality because that's so much easier than acknowledging errors and then having to correct them, watch this. And, if you vehemently and violently oppose willful ignorance, watch this. It might not make you happy, but it could make you feel better knowing there are others out there who recognize the perils of positive thinking.

Remember, MIS-perception isn't reality. It's WRONG. Deal with it.

EAnd enjoy the video--but don't be happy about it.



  1. Lynne, Great commentary. The YouTube video is uncomfortable to watch, but truer than not, I fear. Ehrenreich's "Five and Dimed" was another grim reminder of the plight of those whose well-being is at the mercy of wishful thinking.

  2. "Uncomfortable" definitely captures it. Thanks for reading!