Snake Oil or a Real Solution?
Have you ever attended a seminar given by one of those motivational speakers who earns his living giving talks? Such people earn $10,000 or more per session to describe their own visions of “the power of positive thinking.” Some of those meetings sound like a Sunday morning sermon combined with a hard-sell infomercial. And you’d better buy those CDs and books afterwards!
Regular readers of this column know I often write about the merits of positive thinking as well. I’ve considered that a great mental outlook since I took the Dale Carnegie course more than 25 years ago, but I’ve had my fair share of surprises and unexpected turns, some of which I might have avoided with a little more skepticism. For me, the issue is that the opposite of positive thinking is a scary and depressing place.
It’s hard work being a full-time skeptic. The negativity wears on you, leading to premature aging and a lot of missed opportunities. It’s easier and much more fun to think positively. But even better is a mix of both . . . Is it possible to be a skeptic and an optimist at the same time?
Jan, a committed scientist-entrepreneur, illustrates my view that an exclusive diet of positive thinking can create blinders that keep you from seeing the big picture. Unexpected challenges may catch you off guard. And some problems have within them the seeds of other unique opportunities — if you have the ability to see them before the chance is gone. Jan’s stint as an entrepreneur didn’t last — he was back in the job market a few months later.
Below, I compare Jan with another start-up scientist, a woman who has the ability to use what I call “positive focusing.” This balanced viewpoint allows her to make the steady progress she has visualized, but also to keep her eyes open for potential obstacles. Whether you are an entrepreneur or a project manager, positive thinking alone won’t get you over the hurdles life sets in your path. In this case, a successful business was spun out of the process described below:
Carol managed to get her proposal into the hands of the FedEx driver just in the nick of time. It had been a long day, ducking the phone and staying in close contact with her two partners and her laptop. Since presenting their technology two days before to an influential venture capital firm in San Francisco, Carol had been working non-stop to rewrite the business plan. She and her partners had found that their proposition wasn’t as universally attractive as they had hoped it would be. Her partners had initially felt that they should plow ahead and continue the process with what they had, despite the fact that it was the 15th such presentation that hadn’t paid off.
Carol felt there was a unique opportunity present in the comments from the venture firms that had turned them down. Her partners at Trident were positive thinkers. Because they believed so strongly in the lead molecule, it was almost impossible for them to see alternative views of the company’s future. Carol, on the other hand, practiced positive focusing. She knew in her heart that there would be a successful conclusion to Trident’s initial financing. But she also knew that to get to that point, the three founders would have to explore a range of ideas that weren’t a part of the initial game plan.
Her focus on a positive result, combined with a wide view of any potential obstacles, gave her an idea for a new concept. She convinced her team members to focus on a spin-off potential within their core technology. Making that element the major focus of their business plan was a risk. But as Carol had discovered in other aspects of her life, if you don’t combine flexibility with positive thinking and risk-taking, you won’t succeed.
The Intangible Can Be Golden
I have enjoyed every seminar that I have ever attended on the subject of positive thinking. Though much of what I took home from each individual session is long gone, one point is fixed in my memory because it has proven true for me time and time again: Thoughts are things.
In Think and Grow Rich, his 1930s bestseller on positive thinking, Napoleon Hill wrote, “Truly, thoughts are things, and powerful things at that when they are mixed with definiteness of purpose, persistence, and a burning desire for their translation into riches and other material objects.” Mr. Hill’s book goes on to give specific examples of people who took that burning desire and created a rich life from their thoughts.
His examples are less powerful today because they were taken from the world of the 1930s, but I have found that his ideas are still used daily by many of today’s entrepreneurs, whether they know it or not. Carol’s story above is an example of what I mean.
The Keys to Positive Focus
As I read about and interview others on this topic, I have identified some common elements that successful business people and scientists use to manage the process. Here are some of those attributes exhibited by the successful:
- An expectant, positive view of the outcome: Successful entrepreneurs know deep inside themselves that they will succeed if they do the right things.
- A 360-degree vision: This vision is what separates positive thinking from positive focusing. While positive thinking pushes you ahead, it keeps your eyes focused on the road in front of you while you remain positive about your success. In positive focusing mode, you stay positive but you combine that with an ability to see every obstacle and seek out opportunities that could benefit your project from the most unlikely places.
- A definite purpose and very clear goals: What is your definite purpose? Is it clearly written down along with a set of goals on how to get from here to there? Don’t forget that thoughts are things and that “weak desires bring weak results,” as Napoleon Hill said.
- Huge amounts of persistence: Entrepreneurs need giant reserves of the stuff, and so do many “intrapreneurs” (those running projects inside companies). When studying the lives of great inventors and business people, you’ll find that their final success often came one or two steps past the point where the average person would have given up.
- A burning desire: This is the emotional side of the positive focusing process. It is much easier to focus on a goal when you’re totally committed to it. The burning desire will keep you warm even when the landscape of opportunity seems to grow cold.
On the Career Highway
When traveling 90 miles per hour down the career highway, as we do in the bio/pharma business, there are two ways to handle the potholes you hit along the way. One method is to apply liberal amounts of positive thinking and feel good about the potholes as you run over them. But somehow that doesn’t sound quite as wise as keeping an eye out for the potholes in the first place. In that analogy lies the difference between positive thinking and positive focusing.
David G. Jensen is Managing Director of Kincannon & Reed Executive Search (www.krsearch.com), a leading retained search firm in the biosciences. You can reach Dave at (928) 274-2266 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.