16. Negativity


Name Your Strengths

Before reading this chapter, take a few minutes and do this preliminary exercise: On a sheet of paper, list the strengths, skills, talents and other positive qualities you bring to your activism. These could be anything from the mundane-seeming, but vastly underrated, “I’m punctual,” to the pragmatic “I’m good with computers,” to the more impressive-sounding “I’m a social visionary,” or anything in between. Don’t be shy or modest; come up with as long a list as you can. You don’t need to show it to anyone. Keep the list near you while reading this chapter; I’ll be discussing it soon.

Say you’re a fair-trade activist who wants to hold a film-and-discussion event at your local library. You reserve a room, contact the newspapers, hang posters up all over town and call everyone you know.

The subject is so timely you’re sure you’re going to get a big crowd. When the event rolls around, however, only a handful of people show up: one being the projectionist, and two of the others, your roommates.

There are two basic ways you can react to this kind of disappointing situation. Here is one:

What a disaster. I’m such a dope, a complete loser. I always screw up. I don’t even know why I bother to try. And this town—it’s full of jerks. It was a dumb idea to try to teach them anything. They just don’t get it. I feel like crap. I just can’t stand it. I’m going to get a quart of ice cream and rent a bad movie and crawl into bed.

And here’s the other:

Darn, this is so disappointing. I worked so hard on this, but I must have done something wrong. Oh, well—I lost some time, and I’m kind of embarrassed in front of the library staff and my roommates, but there’s no real harm done. In fact, those two strangers who showed up at the very last minute were very well-informed and seemed motivated to do some future work with us! That’s a great outcome.

Tonight, meanwhile, I’m going to take a break. Even though this event didn’t turn out the way I had hoped, I did my best. I feel kind of low, so I’m going to do something nice for myself. I know! I’ll call my buddy Sam, explain the situation, and ask him to go out to dinner and a movie. And tomorrow I’ll call Karen, who ran that well-attended event over in the next town, and ask what she’s doing that I’m not doing. If I do what she says, next month’s event should be much better attended.

My guess is that, if you’re a procrastinator, the first monologue seems much more familiar than the second. If so, you’ve got some ingrained negative thought habits.

Negativists, as shown in Figure 2, “skew to negative.” That means they tend to see themselves, their accomplishments and everyone and everything around them, as less good, or much worse, than they actually are.

Figure 2. A negativist skews to negative: she tends to see everything, and especially herself and her achievements, as being less good than it actually is.

Negativity is a serious problem for anyone, but particularly for activists, for two reasons. First, activists regularly do confront the world’s negative forces, and it’s easy to exaggerate those, particularly when you’re in the thick of the battle. Todd Gitlin warns against this tendency: “Just because you let the dark side of the world into your nervous system doesn’t mean that you have to surrender to gloom, which in any case is never as justified as it thinks.”

Secondly, negativity conflicts with your primary responsibility to view the world objectively so that you can act on it effectively. In Ethics Into Action, Peter Singer advises activists, “Above all, keep in touch with reality.” And in Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky says that an activist’s primary duty is to “see the world as it is.”

Here are two specific mistakes negativists make in their thinking and behavior:

• The negativist is not looking at people and situations objectively. Therefore, she is bound to make erroneous assumptions, draw inaccurate conclusions and take inappropriate actions. The activist who plans an event based on erroneous assumptions is likely to fail. The one who thinks her event failed because she’s a “complete loser” living in a community full of “jerks” is drawing inaccurate conclusions. And the activist who is blind to her movement’s successes is likely to become unreasonably discouraged and to discourage others.

• Negativity is isolating. Negativists often believe they appear “realistic,” “pragmatic,” or “hard-headed,” but colleagues and mentors with a healthy world-view recognize negativity for what it is—a sign of insecurity and a disabling force—and flee from it. When that happens, it often deepens the negativist’s insecurities and reinforces her tendency toward negativity and isolation, so the problem compounds itself.

To be clear, I’m not talking about adopting a naïvely optimistic “this is the best of all possible worlds” attitude. I’m also not talking about disabling your critical faculties or setting low expectations for yourself. I’m talking about being an objective or, if you prefer, truthful observer and evaluator of yourself and your work, as well as of those around you and society in general.

The Negativist’s View of Self

Negativists tend to be harshest on themselves.

As a coach, I get to witness this phenomenon at close range and it never ceases to amaze me. The most talented and impressive people often see themselves as failures, and drag a heavy burden of shame along with them wherever they go. Many of my students put themselves down in big and small ways as a matter of course. Their conversations are peppered with expressions that undervalue their achievements, such as, “It’s not such a big deal,” or “I didn’t really do that much,” or “Anyone could have done that.” Even the ubiquitous, “I can’t do math,” usually turns out to be wrong, and is therefore an example of negativity.

Some students are so divorced from their strengths, skills, talents and accomplishments that I have to conduct the psychological equivalent of an archaeological dig to help them build a resume or personal history statement reflecting their skills and accomplishments. We’ll sit for hours facing each other across a desk, with me interviewing them minutely on their past experiences and writing up all their positives—many of which they initially don’t even recognize as such. Often, when we are done, they are astonished to see how much they have accomplished.

A truly adept negativist can turn even a stellar accomplishment into a failure. One day, I asked a student who had an MBA what school he had gotten it from, and he told me Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. That is a top school, so I congratulated him. His self-deprecating, negativist response amazed me: “Oh, it’s only the third or fourth best school.”

How big a negativist are YOU? Look at the Name Your Strengths list you created before starting this chapter. (If you didn’t create it, set this book down and create it now, before you read on.)

If you listed twenty to thirty strengths, skills, talents and other positive qualities, you did pretty well.

If you listed ten to twenty strengths, skills and talents, you did okay.

If you listed five to ten strengths, skills and talents, you did average. When I do this exercise in classes, most students respond within this range.

If you listed zero to five strengths, skills and talents, you did poorly, but you’ve got lots of company. There are always a few people in every class who can think of few or no good things to say about themselves.5

My own Name Your Strengths list, which I keep on my computer and regularly print out, review and add to, currently includes more than eighty items. That is not because I’m some kind of prodigy or egomaniac, but simply because I work hard to recognize all my talents and strengths and am not embarrassed to admit them to myself. I often share my list with my students, who, by the way, are frequently amused to find “humility” listed among the dozens of other paeans to myself. They also see entries such as “loves animals” and “not a slave to fashion” along with the more standard fare such as “smart” and “good with computers.” We typically define success too narrowly, for reasons I will explain in the next chapter, and that often leads us to ignore some of our more interesting and unique qualities. But why not include them? Who knows when they won’t come in useful? The fact that I love animals seemed irrelevant for years, for instance—until I started doing animal activism.

Make no mistake: Name Your Strengths is an important exercise. If you do not recognize and “own” your strengths, skills and talents, how can you use them to build your success? And if you go around feeling devoid of talent, how are you going to have the confidence to set an ambitious agenda for yourself and then follow through on your plan?

Go back now and see what you can add to your list. Then, talk to friends and mentors and see what they would add to it. You will be amazed at all the good traits your friends see in you that you never suspected.

To help you out, here is a list of attributes I’m guessing you have just because you’re an activist and reading this book:

See how easy! Even if not every one of these applies to you, I’ve probably just doubled or trebled your list. I could probably list twenty or thirty more, but I’ll leave that work to you. . . .

Don’t analyze your Strengths list and, for goodness sake, don’t sit around and think about to what degree you are punctual, a great speller, etc. Just keep the list near you, review and add to it every so often, and (privately) celebrate your strengths. That small effort will go a long way toward helping you succeed.


Create Your “Life Resume”

If you have trouble recognizing your talents and accomplishments, you can address that problem by creating a Life Resume. It resembles a normal, professional resume, but also includes experiences and accomplishments from outside your work life. A good way to write one is to begin with your professional resume and then start adding to it. Begin with your Activist experiences and accomplishments. Then, move on to the areas of Health and Fitness, Relationships and Whole Person (creativity, spirituality, etc.). Write down each experience or accomplishment in detail, and also write down the strengths, skills and talents you used for it. Needless to say, do not write down any of your perceived failures, flaws and weaknesses. You wouldn’t do that on a normal resume, so why would you do it here?

In a Life Resume, none of your achievements is devalued or unworthy of note. If you’ve . . .

• created a pleasant and welcoming home

• been a wonderful friend/partner/parent/child/guardian

• enjoyed a passionate hobby such as cooking or gardening

• developed a distinctive personal style

• made terrific art or music

• worked hard to recover from childhood traumas and/or to reconcile with a parent or other estranged loved one

• helped a needy neighbor or stranger

. . . it all goes in your Life Resume.

Also, a project doesn’t have to be finished or “perfect” to be included. Even if you haven’t yet fully reconciled with your parent, your reconciliation work nevertheless counts as an achievement and should be listed.

A Life Resume usually turns out to be a much bigger project than we anticipate, because we’ve usually done many more wonderful things than we realize. Take your time and have fun creating your Life Resume, and when you’re finished, go out and celebrate your many strengths, skills, talents and accomplishments!