In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published a book entitled, The Power of Positive Thinking. It’s a self-help book that was written to help its readers realize their potential, and it continues to be a foundational self-help resource even after 60 years.
And I believe it to be fairly dangerous.
Peale touts the benefits of ignoring negative thoughts and focusing on positives alone as the force majeure in achieving personal success. The trouble is, the book concerns itself little with one’s true circumstances, chance, unintended or unforeseen consequences, and it even cuddles up to the idea of ignoring reality itself.
Why is this dangerous? It’s dangerous because it can blind the follower to risk, and those who follow its precepts can embody a character of imperviousness. For them, it could be a recipe for disaster. You’d never hear a parachute-less skydiver say, “Well I thought I could fly,” because that skydiver would be dead.
And really flat.
Positive thinking is critical to survival, but practitioners of unabashed positive thinking often ignore risk, distort unwelcome facts, and can even mask deep psychological problems. It is inevitable that some proponents of positive thinking will succeed, but to the rest, their fairytale futures can eventually succumb to the incessant hammering of reality. And when their true selves are finally exposed as being far from the ones they believed themselves to be, the damage can be irreparable.
“I am smart.” “I am rich.” “I am talented.” I am physically beautiful.” “I own homes in Tahoe and in Key West.” These positive affirmations may be attractive. They may even be excellent goals for many. But wait: For most of us, the images of who we want to be and who we truly are, describe two very different people. The challenge is that the mind cannot accept two conflicting truths at the same time, no matter how positive we try to be.
The solution is profoundly simple. While clinging to Peale’s idea of describing the person you want to be, see that image as an ideal, not as a reality. In this way, the mind is no longer conflicted by holding two opposing truths at the same time. It is free to accept the “current you” while also embracing the “future you.”
Your future you is a goal to be achieved. It can never be who you are today. The best way to make progress is to define, clearly, the future you. Give your mind plenty of tasks to complete, attributes you want to embody, resources to employ. One day you will become that future you. But don’t paint yourself to be something you are not at this moment. Your mind will see right through it and stop you in your tracks.