My Kindle broke yesterday. This made me very happy. Not at first you understand. I was quite cross as I wanted to read the end of my thriller. But when you are a book addict and you have no new books to read, you read old ones. And I made a remarkable discovery.
First I read a book by a modern professor of psychology, a scrupulous scholar. Then I picked up a self-help classic -- an old one, in fact, published in 1959. Lo and behold, the most important message from both books was the same, and one I have taken to heart. It is a message that never ceases to surprise and inspire me, even though I have heard it before. Some things are so wonderful in their implications, yet so contrary to how we think and live, that we need to hear them over and over again.
Let's start with a hit between the eyes from the professor. "I think talent is vastly overrated," says Martin Seligman. "It leaves out a factor that can compensate for low [talent] scores or greatly diminish the accomplishments of highly talented people: explanatory style." By this, he means what we tell ourselves when good or bad things happen - whether we gives ourselves the credit or the blame; in a word, optimism, or its absence. "I have come to think," Seligman says, "that the notion of potential, without the notion of optimism, has very little meaning." In other words, we can negate our potential by not believing in ourselves, or we can create results if we expect them, despite other people not thinking much of our potential. Seligman quotes a biologist, Lionel Tiger, who argues that we humans have been selected by evolution because of our optimistic illusions about reality. That sounds right to me. Just think of all the people who start new ventures and vastly over-estimate their chances of success. If they were more realistic two bad things would happen: (1) There would be fewer new businesses started, and (2) entrepreneurs would give up rather than persevere, and eventually win.
Now listen to the irrepressible David Schwartz, who wrote The Magic of Thinking Big, which has sold over 5 million copies and is still selling well more than half a century after it came out. "Your mind," he says, "is an amazing mechanism. When your mind works one way, it can carry you forward to outstanding success. But the same mind operating in a different manner can produce a total failure." One chapter is headed, "Make Your Attitudes Your Allies".
Seligman and Schwartz are saying exactly the same thing. And they are absolutely right.
I reflect on the time, when I was 30, that I left one strategy consulting firm and joined another. I was pretty much fired from the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) for not being bright enough. I talked my way into Bain & Company, a firm that seven years earlier had spun off from BCG in an acrimonious divorce. Believe me, my transfer raised the average level of intelligence in both companies. The BCG folks were much smarter than the Bain ones. But Bain & Co had two great things going for it. One, it had terrific leadership from "Mr Big", William Worthington Bain, who had devised a formula for consulting that used the BCG product in a much more effective way. Let's not get distracted by that, however. The second advantage Bain & Co had was that it stressed attitude over intellect. In assessing any consultant, the first question, the most basic question, was "does he or she have the right attitude?"
Now, I have to tell you that this struck me, at first, as manipulative and rather crass. It smacked to me of fundamentalist religion, mind control, and Stalinism. If you were going to be judged by your attitude, you couldn't really criticize your bosses. But you know what? It took me a few months, but I came to realize that the emphasis on attitude made my job immensely easier. Being surrounded by people who supported me, rather than criticized me, made me ten times as effective. And I got to enjoy supporting other people myself, rather than carping at them, as I had done before. Above all, I started to believe that I could be a real success. After being a failure at BCG, this changed my life hugely. I still worked hard, but I felt I was winning. Within two years of joining Bain, I had been promoted twice and I made partner, well before my more intelligent counterparts in BCG. I really enjoyed my work, and my personal life improved out of all recognition.
Same Richard Koch, different environment, different attitude. More optimism. More results.
There are three truths here which before God and Man I hold to be self-evident:
1. Attitude is much more important than intelligence
2. The best way to improve your attitude is to join a firm that has a positive attitude and insists that all its staff do
3. The other excellent way to improve your attitude is to stop spending time with negative and critical friends, and start spending time with those who will support you.
You could also, of course, try to edit your negative thoughts. Don't try to repress them. Listen to them. But then say, "Oh well, that's one point of view, but here's another point of view, that is much more positive. I'm not saying the positive view is more accurate than the negative one. I just can't tell. I don't think anyone can. But what I do know is that the negative view will make me and the people around me miserable, and the positive one will make us happy. So you choose, dear mind. Do you want to be happy or miserable? Do you want to be a failure or a success? Really hard choice, huh?"
But as Steve Jobs would have said, one last thing. You can say all this to yourself, and still choose to be miserable. It can become a habit. So how do you break out?
The way to break out is to change the people you are with - see points 2 and 3 above. Don't have anything to do with people and firms that don't support you, and don't require you to support them.
Life, as Scott Peck famously wrote, is difficult. Don't make it harder for yourself. Choose your environment carefully, and then it will be so much easier to be positive and successful.
I think I've said it all. Take it to heart. As the song says, relax, be happy. But do it in the right company.