04/11/2011 08:49 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Workarounds: Have You Ever Generalized, Deleted or Distorted the Truth?

Last week's article, which asked if positive thinking really works, raised quite a bit of interest amongst a diverse group of readers. Some found the subtle differences between positive thinking and positive action, between an ambitious goal and a pipe dream, to be quite useful. Others wound up dismissing the approach with sweeping generalizations, clever distortions and simply omitting inconvenient elements of the ideas expressed.

Kaarina Dillabough, a former Olympic coach, found the article useful:

Mr. Bishop, this was the most inspiring, affirming, BEST article. It sums up most eloquently the feelings I feel about people looking for "the answer" from every expert, bestseller, workshop, Top 10 Secrets, but never, in your words, getting "off their objections and actually take a positive step forward."

You have reinforced my passion for getting people to DO. For many years, especially post-The Secret days, and all the talk about visualization and affirmations, I kept a quiet but steady voice as legions of idolizing converts thought it was all about reading about it, thinking about it and picturing it.

As a former Olympic level coach, I know the power of thought, visualization and affirmation. But no amount of that wins the gold medal. Action is what's needed.

Your article fills me with so many ah-ha moments, and yes! yes! yes! excitement, I just had to email you in person. You've made my day, and emboldened me on my journey.

With gratitude,

Kaarina Dillabough

One of the reasons I chose to print Kaarina's email is that she points out something that many of the critics do as well, but instead of falling into generalizations, deletions and distortions, Kaarina wisely discerns the difference between an idea and the application of the idea. She correctly notes, as do the critics, that many have misapplied the elements of a positive focus by failing to engage in the necessary actions.

The critics on the other hand, seem to dismiss the value of connecting positive focus with positive action by generalizing about people who have tried to change their lives by simply thinking about it. That's a bit like criticizing the hammer because someone used it to hurt himself instead of driving nails.

Having spent a good deal of my life finding fault, I surely know something about how the process of criticism and fault-finding works. Something I discovered in my own makeup many years ago may be helpful here, so allow me to share a few thoughts on the subject.

Years ago, I found that I was pretty good at what I have come to call "deficit vision" or "deficit thinking." I could look at most anything and see something missing, something that could be improved or something that just didn't work as well as I thought it should. That's actually not a bad ability to have, because it can be used to make things better, safer or more effective.

I found that I could pick apart just about any idea, especially ideas focused on self-improvement. If I could pick a hole in an idea, if I could find a fault or vulnerability, then I could give myself permission to dismiss the idea. You know the approach: "See, I told you there was a problem with this idea." Underlying my acute sensitivity and ability to pick apart self-improvement ideas was the fact that I had endured a number of hardships growing up and had built up quite a repertoire of excuses for why my life wasn't any better.

One day, as I was pointing out why yet another opportunity would "never work," my good friend Bernard quoted Mark Twain to me. Mark Twain summed up the problem this way: "All generalizations are false, including this one." Bernard went on to say that there was no need to argue for my limitations; they were sufficiently limiting all by themselves. I could either take something of value from the opportunity or idea and build on it, or I could remain stuck in my generalized excuses for not moving forward.

That one really got my head spinning. Of course, the statement is true. It's never going to be about "never" or "always." Bernard's wise counsel was to find the aspects of the idea that I could apply, and take that part with me, discarding the rest. As I have found, something that I can attack today may wind up extremely useful in another circumstance, or with greater knowledge, insight or awareness.

In addition to generalizations, the negativist critic is also likely to employ considerable helpings of deletion and distortion. You already know the generalization approach: "These things never...," "I always...," and similar statements. Deletions sometimes go undetected because, well, they are left out: the critic simply or even skillfully omits inconvenient data points in a rush to beat the drum of their own argument. The distortion approach simply twists what has been said to fit into the argument of the one on the offensive.

The deletion-oriented critic likes to either leave out examples of how people have used one or more of these ideas to make considerable improvements in their lives. When reminded of examples ranging from the incredible to the ordinary, the critic often turns to dismissing the example by distorting the situation or even the individual. I remember the first time I pointed out how Mitchell had overcome his disfiguring third-degree burns and subsequent paralysis, one of our favorite critics tossed him into the "doesn't count" trash bin by dismissing him as a former Marine, the claim being made was that Mitchell was different from you and me because he been a Marine and therefore what he had done doesn't count!

In my recent series of articles about how taking a positive approach works, some critics seem to jump on the generalization bandwagon, claiming that positive thinking is the root of all that ails America. Of course, they're right if all they do is look at people who have misused the hammer. Indeed, as I have pointed out multiple times, positive thinking does not work -- if all you do is think. Improving your current situation requires associated positive action to have even half a chance.

For the Horatio Algers out there, indeed, that next new job may turn out to be the next step on the way to your first $100 million. I suppose anything is possible. However, I would rather work with people who want to get real about where they are right now, focus on what they might prefer and assume "response-ability" for moving in an upward direction. All of this begs the question about what really matters to you, and how you can produce that. Not surprisingly, there is a huge difference between what people pursue every day and the experiences they truly seek. "Money can't buy me love" is a phrase we all know, and it's true.

There are huge differences between what you can imagine and what you can create. If you only have six bucks to your name, I suppose you could fantasize about having $100 million in the bank. Unless you are made of something pretty unique, most of us would have a difficult time getting up off our "buts" to do much of anything; the "goal" is just too disconnected from reality. Creating an image of a new job, however, with a nice pay increase along the way, may be much more within grasp. Staying focused on that realistic improvement while taking the steps necessary to get there can help quite a bit.

There's a lot of potential in holding a positive thought or focus; there's even more power in taking positive action.

Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at

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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life, or how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."

You can buy "Workarounds That Work" here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at You can contact him by email at Russell@