The curse of positivity

positivity1I don’t mind optimism.

I love joy-in-work.

Fun is down right enjoyable.

But I can’t stand positivity.

I reserve a special place in my systems thinking Hell for the use of the word “positive” to describe things approved of in work and want more of, and “negative” for things they disapprove of and don’t want.

If somebody suggests that some initiative “won’t work” and provides reasons, this may be viewed as negative.
If someone suggests that an initiative will work, and provides reasons, this may be viewed as positive.

Those two examples are predictions of a factual nature, however accurate, met with a judgement that is a sealed final opinion that is not testable.

I despise either judgement, being in themselves judgements full-stop . I prefer “useful” or “not useful”. This is something that can be evaluated as true, “useful” or “not useful” requires an effect in the real world to evaluate the accuracy of the statement.

“Positive” or “negative” are verbal equivalents of “yum!” or “yuck!”. They can’t be proved or disproved, they just are.
They lie full length in the opinion of the opinion-giver, and aren’t going anywhere because of what they are and where they are, like a drunk falling head first into a into a newly dug grave.

The cult of positivity encourages a witless knowledge-free approach to tackling issues, unencumbered by the burden of knowing what works or the desire to find out.
Like a Newfoundland puppy hurling itself joyously against a door that opens inwards, the same issues are approached in the same way, as if pure unbridled professional optimism was all that’s needed this time.

The cult reaches its nadir in solutioneering, in meeting rooms with as many opinions of what the problem is as there are people in the room, ideas that just might work are hurled breathlessly against a barely examined problem.
This is inevitable when the system makes it so that people are judged not for their understanding of the problem, but for their espousal of self-generated solutions.

Einstein said something like “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

I spent yesterday in my attic hack-sawing pipes off an old copper water tank so I could fit it through the hatch. Instead of looking carefully at the few pipes connected to it, and deciding what needed cutting to free the tank, I looked for the easiest angles that would hurt my arms the least.
This led to me sawing through about 6 lengths of pipe instead of just the 3 that I eventually had to saw through.
I saw the problem as “find the easiest pipes to cut” rather than “find the most important pipes to cut“.

I was enjoying cutting through thin pipes that weren’t necessary because they were easier and therefore more satisfying, rather than tackle the fewer thicker pipes that I had to cut anyway.

I doubled my workload because I went at the problem with gusto, gleefully brandishing my new hacksaw.
In the end I know the problem was solved though, as the water tank is in my garage. But what problems still remain in the metaphorical attic in your office because of the curse of positivity?
The ones that can’t be seen due to the blur of joyous activity around them?


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3 Responses to The curse of positivity

  1. dancarins says:

    There’s a good quote in this podcast from The Bottom Line on Radio 4 in April about organisations mainly being delusional optimists. In fact there are many good Systems Thinkingy quotes in it. Worth a listen:


  2. One definition of an optimist is someone who has not had enough experience …

    In praise of the world’s “Eeyores”


  3. james says:

    Have you read ‘Smile or Die’ by Barbara Ehrenreich.
    She points out the effects of positivity on the Bush administration. W is a ‘don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’ kind of boss.


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