I’ve just watched a beautiful, uplifting video about success. It was aimed at women – all the images and speakers were famous women – but could equally apply to men in its message: work hard; focus on what matters; know that failure is part of the journey – use it to learn. If you do these things, you will be on your way.
For a moment it won: it made me feel hurrah! for those wonderful women and slightly unsettled that here I am, messing about writing poems, managing a charity shop, an impossible jungle garden and a family. Really, shouldn’t I be successful by now? Hell, I should be rich, famous and botoxed. I’d better concentrate, get on my way.
But on my way where, exactly? All the images were famous women – writers, sportswomen, politicians. But, at any one time, only one person can be ranked first for a sport; only one person can be leader of a political group; only one person can top the bestseller chart, or the most watched TV show stats. So how many of us does that make failures? The entire rest of humanity?
One of those captioned photos on social media listed ways to success including:
– think positive
– don’t listen to people who talk negatively
– keep your focus no matter what
– put yourself first
– because you’re worth it
‘Scuse me, but aren’t those traits of all those overbearing politicians and CEOs who know they know best and don’t give a shit for the rest of us? The Boss-suited tycoons who sign away rainforests, enslave poor communities and don’t pay taxes on their offshore profits? The lobby lick-arses who get off on undermining accountability?
Positive thinking does have a role in life – many of us will have benefited from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, sports psychology, mindfulness or life coaching – but it’s not the answer to everything. Nor is it an excuse.
Negative thoughts – providing they don’t wake you in a 3 am panic attack night after night – are our checks and balances. They stop us doing utterly stupid things. They make us discuss ideas with friends we trust or at least our bank. What if …? When negative thought is banned silly projects go ahead: remember Thatcher’s Poll Tax? Anyone with half a brain could see it would not work because it would be far too costly to keep track of everyone and – back then – the technology was not up to it. So many schemes of all sizes flounder because of yes men, yes thoughts, where negativity is banished.
‘Hey, Mr Fabulously-rich-CEO, what led to your success?’
‘Positive thinking and hard work.’
Bollocks. Sure those two factors played a part but they are not the full story. I’d bet family money, a good education (meeting the right people), networking (meeting the right people), charm (meeting the right people is the key to success) and perhaps even psychopathy all have more effect. As another captioned photo of barefoot women carrying vast piles of firewood on their heads says, ‘If wealth were based on hard work, these women would all be millionaires’. The myths of positive thinking and hard work are cognitive dissonance for those of us with money to feel we deserve it.
At the nadir of positive thinking we come to victim blaming: you are poor because you didn’t try (if you are poor it is because you deserve to be poor; if rich people earn their wealth then the converse applies); you didn’t think yourself better which is why your cancer is spreading; it’s your fault you are so depressed; you could cure your arthritis if you put your mind to it. Robin Williams being selfish in his despair because what right did he have to be depressed with his success?
I’m not “successful” in terms of fame or fortune but I was born into a first world country and have reasonably healthy, happy life. I try to be positive, think carefully, make good choices in all the little details of daily life. I think pros and cons. I think gratitude, joy and also things that should be challenged.
I think myself lucky.