They say that “dog bites man” is not worth reporting, but “man bites dog” is newsworthy.
Some of our blog posts started as cases of “man bites dog”. After decades in which “positive thinking” was generally accepted, those posts took a close look at a growing view that “negativity may be good for you”. But we ended up concluding that arguments for negativity commonly turn out to be based on mere matters of how you define negativity.
Upon close examination, at least some claims for negativity appear to be simple matters of treating realism as negative thinking. For example, thinking through obstacles that might get in the way of reaching a desired goal is considered negativity.
That realism helps us to reach our goals is clearly not a “man bites dog” story. Who would be intrigued by a story like that?
So must we conclude that positivity is simply good and negativity is simply bad? What about the many writings that affirm the value of failure?
But didn’t it require a lot of positivity to confront their mistakes, learn from them, and then take the chances that ultimately resulted in success? Surely hope, optimism, problem-solving, and other aspects of positivity were needed to enable persistence through failure on to the point of success.
Hope, optimism, and a problem-solving attitude are all important aspects of resilience. And there is research confirming that resilience makes success more likely.
Martin Seligman in his classic book, “Learned Optimism” has whole chapters describing how what he calls an “optimistic explanatory style” is linked to success in difficult sales jobs (Chapter 6) and in various aspects of athletic competition (Chapter 9).
The work on athletics is particularly relevant to our present discussion of the role of failure. Seligman found that athletes and teams with optimistic styles were more likely than others to come back and win after being behind in the game. They were able to snatch victory from what appeared to be a coming defeat.
One thing for sure is that a failure need not be a reason to give up on anything; not on reaching your goals and, most importantly, not on yourself.
Failures, painful as they may be, are opportunities to learn what doesn’t work and plan the next steps better informed than you were when you first planned how to reach your goals.