Tuesday, June 23, 2009

OK, so your glass is half full. Should you try to fill it the rest of the way?

If you live anywhere near the East Coast, you know that it has now rained for 229 consecutive days. People are building arks and gathering animals two-by-two. If I'm exaggerating, it's not by much. To give you some idea of how bleak it's been, we are now in the eighth week of my league's baseball seasonand my 45-and-over team has played exactly four games; on Father's Day a make-up game of a game that was rained out three weeks ago was rained out again. Over the past two weekends in particular, a genuinely absurd amount of rain fell. It was like someone's idea of a practical joke.

Last night, at around 5:40, the sun came out. Shortly thereafter my neighbor got home from work. My neighbor, you must understand, is the kind of man who whistles his way through life. He whistles when he goes to the mailbox each night to get the mail. He whistles while he just walks around
and walks doesn't quite capture the spirit of the event. He struts. He bounces. Suffice it to say you will never meet a more upbeat, positive-thinking human being. This is a fellow who, I am quite sure, were he on the verge of having both arms amputated, would say something like, "Well, now I won't have to wear those annoying long-sleeved shirts anymore!" Then he'd whistle.

So anyway, I'm cleaning the grime off my car when he comes home, and as he pulls into the driveway, he lowers the power window on his Beemer and says, "Hey, the sun's out!"

To which I reply, "Yeah. And just in time to set."

To which he replies, "Better late than never!"

Now that's a good attitude. But the brief exchange represented more than just a concise object lesson in
how full or empty our hypothetical glasses are. It also got me thinking about what may well be the core questions in self-help, if not all of human striving:

Where is the fine line between COPING and CHANGING?


How do you know when you've reached it?
It's one thing to put a happy face on situations, like the weather, that we can't do much about.* It's one thing to tell ourselves, "Hey, that's life," and use that as a coping mechanism. But at what point does positivity become a negative? If people end up coping with situations that actually call for change, then positive outlooks of the sort that have someone expressing gratitude for a few hours of sun after weeks of rain aren't helpful. In fact, they become a major part of the problem. You shouldn't be "positive" about a truly bad situation. You shouldn't see the glass as half full.

You should be pissed off and determined to find a way out. Because that's what motivates change.

Hence, my question, in another form: How do you know whether a given situation is (a) something you're supposed to cope with or (b) something you're supposed to reject? How do I know whether my "intolerable situation" is someone else's "hey, that's life"? And should that matter?

You might reply that such questions hint at their own answer: "It's an individual call. That's the beauty of life. There are no universal answers. It's whatever's right for you." Sorry, I don't see that rationale as much of a solution. We all know people who tolerate situations that clearly shouldn't be tolerated (e.g. the long-suffering wife who stays with a physically abusive, drunken, philandering husband) or, conversely, who can't seem to tolerate anything (e.g. the wife who sails through marriages like other women go through shoes). And those are just the easily discernible poles of the phenomenon. How many others are making do with too much or too little? Rejecting things they should accept or accepting things they should reject?

Find me a self-help program that meaningfully addresses those sorts of nuance-type issues and I'll not only buy the book, I'll go on nationwide tour for the author.

* And even in the case of weather, one might argue that people like my neighbor, who is an admitted sun worshiper, should live in a place like, say, Las Vegas, instead of simply drawing comfort from the occasional breaks in the cloudy skies we've been having back east. Right? Why is he coping instead of moving?


Stever Robbins said...

I think the optimism question is extremely important. A friend of mine wrote an excellent essay on climate change and why optimism actually causes us to underestimate the impact significantly. (Here is a link to his article on optimism and climate change.)

In short, our desire to be optimistic leads us to blind ourselves to long-term scary trends. When the trend is one where corrective action must be started far in advance, optimism can delay or eliminate our response to the point where we can't respond fast enough.

I believe that Peak Oil has a similar characteristic. Whether you believe it's happened, will happen next year, or won't happen for 100 years, the lead time needed to create a new worldwide energy infrastructure is far more than a few years. If we start too late, it doesn't matter if we know the solution--we won't be able to implement it before we run out of the very resources we need to do the implementation.

(Scarier totally-off-the-radar factoid: the current productivity of the world's food supply depends on petroleum-based fertilizers. If we hit a true, severe oil shock, it won't just be transportation and heating that take a hit. We may not have enough calories to feed 6 billion people.)

Being too optimistic makes you feel good, but's it's bad for engineering real solutions to real problems.

claire said...

This might be the most important post you've put up yet. I'm sending the link to a fair number of people I know who really need to read it.

Steve Salerno said...

The following article, "Positive is Negative," cites new research on the counterproductivity of positive self-talk. This tip actually was sent by Cal, but he reprinted the entirety of the article in his comment, which is a copyright no-no. So I've "tinied" the URL, which will take you to the clip itself:


I don't know how I missed this, but I did--which is why I remain grateful to all faithful readers who keep me on my toes. Thank you, Cal.

Mike Cane said...

Well, look, Steve, it seems to me your neighbor is just naturally a happy guy. Some people are, you know. Besides, what good would it have done him to gripe about the weather? (21 out of 24 days have had rain HERE, so I know what it is!)

And you know I've gone on about the lethality of the psychopathically "optimistic" before:

Optimism Kills

Defensive Pessimism: Part Of The Real Secret

The Sinatra song -- My Way -- hey, even the happy have a right to do it their way. Just, you know, not around me.

Mike Cane said...

Steve, here's something else to chew on. I thought this tweet I got about my first referenced post above was dead-on:

>>>@mikecane The true optimist would simply have said, "We'll get out." It wasn't optimism that killed them, but expectation. Maybe. :-)

From @JennWebb

Jenny said...

Hi, Steve. I am not sure if I can answer your question(s), but it occurs to me that talking to a trusted friend can help with those types of damned if I do and damned if I don't situations, better known as dilemmas. (Well, some of them are dilemmas and others are just aggravating.)

I know you are a basement (man cave) kinda guy who claims not to really have many friends, or at least I recall you saying something to that effect. :)

My experience is that sometimes an answer just isn't apparent after mere self-reflection, or even after sleeping on it or after waiting for your intuition to kick in. But telling it to a good friend can shed new light on a complex problem that may or may not be a "that's just life" situation. Your friend probably won't have the answer either but just the telling might help you see the situation in a new way.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, very good points, I think. Sometimes we are the last people who can adequately assess our true wants and needs.

Your observation makes me mindful of what baseball immortal Ty Cobb said, very late in life, when asked if he had any regrets. (Cobb was a notoriously disagreeable, belligerent fellow, even among his own teammates.) As the story goes, Cobb thought for a moment, then replied, "I would've made some friends."

roger o'keefe said...

These are the kind of issues that made me interested in your book and an early fan of your blog, Steve. As someone who has been involved in the business world at upper management levels for decades, I can testify to the ridiculous amount of emphasis on micromanaging people's attitudes and even the way they're allowed to express themselves. Most of these things that we try to reduce to pat formulas are unknowable, as you have pointed out. Everybody's fine line between optimism and pessimism is different, and it can be different on different days in different situations. As Jenny also points out, many times people are their own worst enemies, with a very poor sense of what makes them tick or whether they ought to pursue course A or course B. So stop obsessing over it! With most of this stuff, you can just let it be and it will work out however it works out.

Anonymous said...

This has been explored in great detail by people like Dr. Martin Seligman, who's recent book is Authentic Happiness, and his previous book Learned Optimism.

As well, as mentioned by many, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has many ways people can use to adjust their perceptions to reality in the most effective way.

The roots of some of this come from Alfred Korzybski in his book Science and Sanity.

Mike Cane said...

Ty Cobb said what?! I read the bio of him, nowhere was that in it. That sounds like huggy revisionism.

>>>[. . .] Cobb spoke of why he was constantly on the warpath up north: "I get into a lot of trouble and have made many enemies. But my philosophy is brief. I think life is too short to be diplomatic. A man's friends shouldn't mind what he does or says -- and those who are not his friends, well, the hell with them. They don't count." [Cobb: The Life and Times of the Meanest Man Who Ever Played Baseball - Al Stump; pg. 237]

Steve Salerno said...

Mike: Well, have you considered the opposite notion, i.e. that Stump went out of his way to play up the curmudgeonly element, in keeping with the popular image of Cobb? After all, characters can be so much more riveting when they're perfect archetypes of good or evil, love or hate. Right?

Let me also add, I've read a number of profiles of Ted Williams (my boyhood hero) that also painted him as a callous SOB. That may or may not be true in general, but I met the man twice, when I went to his baseball camp at age 14 and again when he came to the dedication of the Ted Williams Freeway in San Diego in the late 1980s. And though he was a stern taskmaster at the camp, he was also supportive and helpful--and he was authentically gracious to tall when he came to the dedication. If you hadn't heard any of the criticism through the years, you would've come away thinking, "Gee, what a nice, humble man..." Not quite his image, eh?

OTOH, the "great Joe D."--who was lionized by everyone everywhere--was downright boorish and rude in my one encounter with the man at the Fanfest held in connection with an MLB All Star game in San Diego. He was even impatient with the kids who'd come up to him in awe.

I don't think people are as one-dimensional as we tend to portray them, and that includes the likes of Manson, Winehouse, Hefner, etc.