Where’s my pony?

Former US president Ronald Reagan was famous for his sense of humour. One of his favourite stories concerned two little boys and a pony. The boys were twins, but had radically different personalities. One was a total optimist, while the other was a total pessimist. Their parents became so concerned by this that they took them to see a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist treated the pessimist first. He took the boy into a room piled high with toys. Instead of shouting with excitement, however, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” asked the psychiatrist. “Don’t you want to play with these wonderful toys?” “Of course I do,” sobbed the boy, “but I’m afraid that I’ll break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. He took the boy into a room piled high with horse manure. Instead of holding his nose in disgust, however, the little boy shouted with delight. Then he jumped on top of the pile and began digging through it with his bare hands. “What are you doing?” asked the puzzled psychiatrist. “With all this manure,” said the boy, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Reagan told this story so often that it became a running joke with his staff. Whenever things went wrong, a staff member would say, “Don’t panic! There must be a pony in here somewhere.” The story is a good reminder of the importance of positive thinking. But things don’t always work out well in the real world. What happens when there is no pony…when there’s just a pile of horse manure?

Nowadays we’re bombarded from all sides with the message that we must think positive. Everyone from current US president Barack Obama (Yes we can!) to motivational speakers like Tony Robbins beat the drum with their incessant positivism. But telling yourself that everything will work out well is poor preparation for when the opposite occurs.

Perhaps the ancient philosophers can remind us of a few things today’s management gurus seem to have forgotten. The ancients understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, success with failure. The Stoics of ancient Greece recommended something they called “the premeditation of evils”. Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking, explains that this is “a wonderful technique which involves deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario, instead of the best one. One benefit of that is that you replace limitless panic and fear – which is how we often respond to problems – with a sober analysis of exactly how badly things could go wrong.”

This concept is similar to what psychologists now call defensive pessimism. Defensive pessimism is a type of negative thinking that produces highly positive results for many people. When faced by a new challenge, defensive pessimists have limited expectations for themselves and analyze in detail everything that may go wrong. They then figure out how they will respond to each potential difficulty. In today’s ‘yes we can‘ world, business people would do well to remember the importance of negative thinking. It can help us accurately assess risk, focus our efforts on achievable goals rather than waste time on unrealistic dreams, and even lower our levels of stress – after all, few things are as stressing as the constant demand for 24/7 positivity.

So, the advice is clear: always looking on the bright side is a mistake. Indeed, some of your most valuable team members may be those who raise objections and appear less than positive. After all, as someone once said, “I like pessimists. They’re always the ones who bring life jackets for the boat.” And as someone else said, “There MAY be a pony in here somewhere. But let’s get real, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s (probably) a duck!”