17. Negativity II: Why It’s Not All Your Fault

Many people do badly on the Name Your Strengths exercise for reasons that are not their fault:

1. Cultural Norms

To many people, the exercise feels like boasting, immodesty or blowing one’s own horn: behaviors many of us were taught are rude.

To those of you who consider this exercise a form of boasting, remember that I am only asking you to write your strengths down on a sheet of paper, not shout them from the rooftops. Also, to discuss them frequently with yourself, but only infrequently, if at all, with others.

To see the importance of owning your strengths, seek out successful people and study how they behave. You will probably see that they are not rude or boastful, but neither are they self-effacing or falsely modest. They display proper objectivity about, and pride in, their strengths and achievements—and this is true of successful people from any culture.

After witnessing how a misplaced sense of humility hobbles some people, I consider it a very fortunate thing that I somehow grew up unafraid to blow my own horn. I was born and raised in New York City, so you can draw your own conclusions. . . .

2. Narrow Definition of Success

The capitalist system often promotes a very narrow, and very dysfunctional, view of success—namely, that if you’ve got a lot of money, you’re a success, and if you don’t, you’re a failure. It doesn’t matter how much of non-monetary value you’ve achieved, or what ethical lapses, if any, you committed to make your fortune.

As an activist, you see the evil behind that definition. However, it’s one thing to get a point intellectually, and another to embrace it on an emotional level. Many people who understand the limitations of the capitalist model of success nevertheless feel like failures because they don’t live up to it. They can’t escape their earlier conditioning or the ongoing pressure to conform.

If you suffer from this problem, my advice is to reread Parts I and II of The Lifelong Activist and do more work on your Mission Management and Time Management. Then, practice living your Mission without shame or regret. It’s vital, in this effort, that you surround yourself with people who understand and support you, and remove yourself from people who don’t.

3. Labels

The entrepreneurship program I used to run typically offered two kinds of classes: one for artists (any kind of creative professional), and another for non-artists (everyone else, including people who wanted to own cleaning services, computer consultancies, coffee shops or auto detailing shops). I would do the Name Your Strengths exercise in both, and it was interesting to compare the types of lists the two classes generated. Practically all the artists included the word “creative” high up on their lists, and practically none of the other entrepreneurs did. Most entrepreneurs are highly creative, however, so the question is, why didn’t the non-artists see themselves that way?

The answer: labels.

From a young age, the artists were probably told they were creative. It was probably drummed into them all the time. They were probably encouraged to paint, sculpt or make music; urged toward art classes and artistic extracurricular activities; and praised for their accomplishments in these areas.

No wonder “creative” appeared high up on their list of strengths.

The non-artists, many of whom might have been just as creative as the artists, probably didn’t get the same label attached to them. So, they didn’t grow up thinking they were creative.

Labels, as any child development expert will tell you, are powerful. They influence us enormously and shape our self-images. They are also hard to shake. Many of my students were labeled negatively in their youth, and those labels continue to haunt them as adults. Maybe they were called “oversensitive” or “an impractical dreamer.” Or maybe they were called “lazy” or “stupid” or “bad at math.” Or maybe they were called worse. In many cases, they are still fighting, as adults, to free themselves from those childhood labels.

What labels are holding you back? Try to break free of all of your labels, and to see yourself and your achievements with fresh eyes. Friends and mentors can really help here; as discussed earlier, they will probably see strengths and talents in you that you never imagined.

By the way, although I sometimes use terms such as “perfectionist” and “negativist” in The Lifelong Activist for rhetorical convenience, I would never use these terms to label someone in real life. I might tell someone that they are acting perfectionistically or negatively, or that they have those tendencies—never that they are a perfectionist or negativist.

The Solution

As with perfectionism, the cure for negativity is to replace dysfunctional (negative) thoughts and behaviors with functional (objective) ones. For example:

The process you’ll go through is the same as described in Chapter 15 for perfectionism: practice, practice, practice. At first, it may be hard to remember to replace a negative thought with a functional one, but after some practice, it will seem more natural, and after still more practice, it will happen automatically. Eventually, you’ll stop thinking so negatively.

As always, never berate yourself when you slip up.