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Evan Davis on... positive thinking

Updated Thursday, 7th October 2010

Evan Davis discusses positive thinking. Is it better to be optimistic in business, or realistic?

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Evan Davis

There are lots of ways in which I'm deluded, in fact in which most of us are deluded, and ways in which it’s actually quite useful to us to be deluded.  They say that women are programmed for example to forget how painful childbirth is.  It’s a very useful delusion for them not to remember how painful it is because we wouldn’t have as many children if they did remember.  When you think about it, love is a delusion, isn’t it?  If you subject it to rational scrutiny, the chance that the person I love is the person on the planet who is best suited to me or the most important person out there, well it’s probably is actually more all in my mind than objectively true.

Now a very interesting question is whether optimism is one of those delusions.  It’s one of those very useful things to be deluded about.  If I think that planting a seed is going to generate more food than it really is going to generate, well then I'm more likely to plant a seed, and even though it’s going to let me down, it will still give me something.  And so optimism can be seen as a human trait that misleads us to some extent, but misleads us in ways that get us to do things, get out of bed in the morning and actually be active.  And that’s why I think there is evidence that entrepreneurs when one meets them are disproportionately optimistic in their nature.  They're people who really see upside more than downside, and indeed quite a few of them one might describe as deluded about all the problems that exist with their business.

Now accept then that optimism is one of those good noble delusions that helps us in life.  How can one temper it, how can one ensure that one gets all the benefits of optimism without suffering the problems of delusions, that they mislead us, that we overlook problems because we've been too stupid to think that they might crop up?  Well here’s I think the way to do it.  It’s stick totally to that old adage you should hope for the best and prepare for the worst.  However optimistic you are in business, however much upside you see, you should reserve a little space in your office, in your mind or in your timetable, you should reserve a little bit of space for negativity.  You should say we’re going to have a meeting once a week about problems.  We’re going to have a room where we think about problems, or in my mind I'm going to have a compartment that lists the problems and prepares for them.

You may not believe they're ever going to occur, you may think it’s the biggest waste of time in your business life, your busy business life, to be worrying about things that aren’t going to crop up because you're an optimist and know that things are all going to go very well, but you probably won't regret spending a few minutes or a few square metres or using a few people to bounce negative ideas off you and make sure you’ve got that covered.  Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. 

That’s my advice; you can join the debate with the Open University.

(3’01”)

 

 

 

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