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The pitfalls of positive thinking

Some of the advice contained in this book seems downright alarming. For instance Peale relates the story of being a passenger in a car that he feels is being driven too fast for the conditions on an “icy winter morning”. The driver’s response to Peale’s request to slow down has been recounted as “Don’t let my driving worry you. I used to be filled with all kinds of insecurities myself but I got over them”. Apart from the echoes of Trump’s line about not letting COVID-19 worry you, the driver’s recklessness and casual labelling of the complainant as weak is, to put it mildly, concerning.

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The story goes on with the salesman, leaning over while driving fast and one-handed on ice to flick through a deck of motivational biblical quotes. He selects a couple to affix to the dashboard including Matthew 17:20, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, “nothing will be impossible for you”.

Incredibly there is no suggestion that this race-driving salesman actually slowed down and drove more carefully. In fact Peale goes on to praise the boy-racer as very wise. I am not sure if quoting the Gospel of Matthew would cut much ice with the highway patrol, assuming they managed to catch up this potentially homicidal monster.

Peale quotes approvingly American psychoanalyst Dr Karl Menninger, who he claimed (without giving any source) said attitudes are more important than facts. I was unable to track down the authenticity of this quote but regardless, without any other context, it is not hard to see how this could be employed by those seeking to deny reality and place blame for failure squarely on the individual. Everything can be solved if mind prevails in a battle with matter. If you fail in this battle, you are a loser.

This simplistic thinking is seductive as it encourages people to think they are more powerful than they really are. As an antidote to self-limited thinking it may be of some use, but I am not going to encourage my teenage driver son to abandon any insecurities he may possess about his driving ability in order to put his foot down with abandon.

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IllustrationCredit:Kerrie Leishman

Attitudes are patently not more important than facts. Ultimately you cannot outrun reality, however much you try. For somebody facing the reality of a disabling illness or injury, encouraging them to find solutions to overcome their barriers is an excellent idea. Encouraging them to engage in potentially injurious activities that ignore the realities of their condition is ignorant and reckless.

While an athlete may show admirable impatience in wanting to get back on the field as soon as possible, that field is littered with examples of people who rushed their rehabilitation or ignored it completely to their ultimate cost. Positive thinking can drive you only so far down the road. Delusional thinking will drive you off the road into a tree.

Jim Bright, FAPS is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy. Email to opinion@jimbright.com. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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