How hyper-positivity can harm your learning, your success, and your judgment

You know the typical mantras:  “Look to the horizon.  Don’t let anything stand in your way.  Be the little engine that could.  Get up and go. Get those blues and doubts right outta your head.”

What do they all imply?  All you need is positive, positive, and more positive.

They’re wrong.

No, I’m not Scrooge.  No, “bah, humbug” here.  I’m here to make your learning and performance more effective.  Hyper-positivity can harm your learning, your success, and your judgment, and here is how.

Let’s start with the sunny side mafia’s approach:  Any hole in your life, question, grief, or frustration keeps you down.  Simply let go of these and replace them (overwhelm them really) with positivity, more energy, more spunk, more effort, more intervention…

…til you succeed or crash and wonder if any of this is worth it.

Not smart.


Journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich calls this popular and sometimes dangerous myth “bright-siding.”  You see it everywhere—in schools, churches, and medicine.

“Nowhere, though, has bright-siding taken firmer root than within the business community, where… the refusal even to consider negative outcomes—like mortgage defaults—contributed directly to the current [ongoing] economic crisis.”

Especially if you try the extreme forms of “bright-siding”, I will bet that you are among a vast majority of people who are either crashing or muddling along, who feel embarrassed that this “sure-fire” attitude approach is not working and who tell almost no one about their failures and struggles.

The reason for the silence is simple.  In this approach, if your positivity doesn’t work, there is something wrong with you.  You weren’t positive enough.  You didn’t really believe.  You weren’t positive in the right way.  Or maybe you were just plain stupid or disabled or “not right for this.” Not only “what you were doing” was a failure, but “you” were a failure.  Who is going to broadcast that?

Well, you are not inadequate, stupid, disabled, or wrong.  You are misinformed. Hyper-positivity prevents you from engaging the very things you need to learn in order to succeed—the things that aren’t working.  It’s like a drug you take in higher and higher doses to mask the symptoms of some problem while failing to address the underlying root.

If you get in a war between your will and underlying reality, reality will win.  The secret is not to cover over uncomfortable realities with happiness juice, but in the opposite—opening up those uncomfortable realities, frustrations, and needs, to see where they come from and see what makes them tick.  In fact, those struggles can even become opportunities.

Okay, how are we going to turn struggles into opportunities?

How does the alternative work?

I will regress for just a second and admit that relentless positivity is strongly preferable to relentless negativity.  But there is a much better option than “cynical do-nothing” or “chirpy optimist”.

How about a balanced, clear-eyed approach, concentrating not so much on your sunny attitude, but what you are doing and whether it’s working?  Learning, success, and judgment are skills.  They are not just events that happen.  They involve you, but are not solely determined by you. Yes, they do take self-knowledge, character, and commitment, what Ehrenreich calls, “existential clarity and courage.”

This alternative approach, we’ll call it “committed experimentation” accepts the value of frustration and failure in pointing the way to success.  Secondly committed experimentation evaluates 1) Effectiveness, 2) Sustainability, and 3) Value, as a way to optimize business development.

I will first show the value of frustration to developing a successful business.  Secondly, I will use the example of the U.S. housing market and my own experience in developing an online business to demonstrate how to evaluate effectiveness, sustainability, and value as skills.

The first is part is easy.  Look into any list of successful entrepreneurs, and you will find abundant examples of those who took a frustration, turned it around, and converted it into a source of profit or improvement of the world.

“At his fist startup, an e-commerce operation, Ben Milne got ‘really really pissed off about interchange fees.’ So he did something about it by starting Dwolla, a cheap way to send or receive cash online or through your phone. The company now processes between $30 and $50 million per month in transactions.” (, “Meet the 30 under 30: Class of 2012”)

The other two elements that often drive innovation and successful entrepreneurialism are personal interest and public need.  Really, two out of three key elements to developing a successful product or service are based on some lack that you fill, a negative that you turn into a positive.

So… if you have a driving passion, experience a frustration others share, or can identify an unmet public need, you are qualified to attempt a business and to learn the skills of committed experimentation.

Committed experimentation


Effectiveness means making your actions count to their maximum.  It also means ensuring that the different parts of your life and business work together well.  If you have a product launch with a malfunctioning payment button, obviously you are not being effective.

If you were to buy a house, effectiveness would be demonstrated by due diligence.  Sure, a particular house may be your “dream home,” but double checking for hidden clauses, hidden flaws, financing terms, etc., will help ensure your home is livable and within your means after the emotional rush fades.

Effectiveness would also mean that you make a clear comparison between buying and renting and decide which is a better choice depending upon your life goals and economic fundamentals (not your “positivity”).

For my budding online business, Citizen Zeus, being effective means ensuring that the opt-in box is working for email subscribers, that my pages are functioning, that my business plans and descriptions make sense, that my posts are compellingly written and addressing some kind of need in a language that the audience can relate to.

Effectiveness also means continually developing. I get feedback from my mentor, Tea, and from others, and I adjust to make my product, plan, and execution more on-target.

A lot of people list “time management” as the prime barrier to their effectiveness, but I suspect that time management is a symptom of the underlying “design management” problem.  When you have something broad-ranging and complex as an online business, you need to do more than plot out your time.  You need to design it, which is hard when you are starting out even if you have a checklist.

In order to design effectively you need to have sustainability and value in mind…


Where is your emotional meltdown point?  For me it’s pretty low when it comes to technical details (though I am getting better as I learn).  I really enjoy writing, creating, and analyzing, and I have little tolerance for one snag after another in getting a working website going.  I have slightly more patience for marketing experimentation and development, and I have a very high capacity and set-point for the demands of engaging clients and providing a direct service of high value.

Sustainable for me means spending more time on the content side of the business.  As a solopreneur, pride and practicality dictate that I learn the working basics of website administration and marketing and develop these skills.  But that is not where the real value lies in terms of what I offer others.  Nor is it my strength.

Sustainability also means income.  If I want to develop a decent income I need to spend the greatest time in where I provide value for others and leverage that value into getting greater help in those aspects of my business that do not produce value for others.

Doing a self-inventory and identifying where you do and do not provide value for others might make sense in developing a sustainable business.  You have to be rigorously honest.   If you are not providing enough value, you have to change something up.  Your business is not sustainable.

Let’s use the housing market example again.  It should have been easy to hone in on just a few simple indicators to confirm that housing prices were completely  unsustainable.  1) People were being issued loans for 10x their salaries instead of 3x, 2) income was flat or falling in real dollars for over a decade, 3) people were being given no-money down loans (meaning they had no real collateral), 4) housing prices had jumped percentage-wise way above even previous bubbles, 5) buying a house cost 3x per month more than what it cost to rent the same house.

And yet most people said, “Housing can only go up.”  There is that relentless hyper-positivity again getting people into serious trouble by encouraging them to confuse “dream” with sheer, irrational “fantasy.”  Ultimately, for a housing market or a business to be fundamentally sustainable, it has to align with a demanding (but character-building) process more than a warm-fuzzy thought.


Value in business is relative.  Value is basically what you are willing to pay. If I asked everyone interested in starting an online business or simply a website, “How much would you be willing to pay to have an attractive, user-friendly, smoothly functioning website,” I would get vastly different answers, depending upon the person, their resources, and their intention.

A functioning website has a very high value to me.  I do the concept, design, and layout (because I am the one conceiving of the business), and I do what I can to activate the framework and template/theme, understand how to manage a dashboard, and work on details, etc.

I make a 100-200 dollars/hour in my consulting, so my stubbornness in trying to work up my email subscriber box myself, did not make sense from a value standpoint.  Tim Gary from Mindcue was able to get it formatted and functioning and upload a whole host of security features in an hour, which costs me a reasonable $75. This was well worth it:  My frustration threshold on hashing out details is low, and my price ceiling for my time is fairly high.

For most people (myself included), maximum value lies somewhere in the middle between having someone do everything for you, and doing it all yourself. You need to draw that scale out and see where you sit on it, and make decisions accordingly.

You can buy a “fully loaded” new house in the suburbs (and pay a lot for it), you could build one from scratch with your own hands, or you could find one with “good bones” in a good location that may require a little fixing up but will be in quality surroundings and have good resale value.

You could pay Jon Morrow to get you 10,000 email subscribers for your website for $10,000 dollars, you could hustle for every subscriber yourself using only free information products, or you could buy the best low-cost guides or take a couple of reasonably prices e-courses and learn how to do it.


There is a relationship between positivity and production.  If you generally get up from bed and feel good about yourself and your day, if you are able to affirm your path, embrace your work, and develop healthy relationships, you will do a lot better than the neighborhood sourpuss.  I can pretty much guarantee it.

The right frame of mind does matter.  However, the right frame of action probably matters more.  There are a lot of well-intended projects that go nowhere.

Getting into the right frame of mind and action is largely an individual thing.  There aren’t good blanket formulas.  For instance, I find it effective to go on a cathartic rant about how screwed up everything is as a way to get it out of my system and settle my mind on what needs to be done in place of a screwed up system.

I’ll spout off on the completely irrational and unaccountable nature of the global economy or swear under my breath at the lack of consistency and connectivity in different internet applications.  Then I get to work.

What is it that gets you best to the core of what you do?  What kinds of strategies do you use to get there?  How do you improve your effectiveness, sustainability, and value?  Leave a comment to share with the community.


  • Great website. A lot of useful information here. Iˇ¦m sending it to some friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And naturally, thank you in your effort!

  • Great article, thank you! I found your link after reading your comment on Whitney Johnson’s HBR article. This post is insightful – loved it.

    • Zeus says:

      Thanks, Jaymie. I’m definitely trying to get past ideological rigidity and myths in trying to create effectiveness in learning. What a novel concept, applying learning successfully to performance! So much of the talk is about “self-esteem” or “character”, it seems like the simple notion of production and performance gets lost. I encourage you to sign up as an email subscriber and I will be sending out very brief, non-annoying emails in the future connecting you with similar posts.

  • This is a great post. Thanks for sharing it, Zeus.

  • […] Yup, I missed the mark on providing a blog post for Tea last week, but I got one up on my own blog that is relevant. (Sorry, Tea. Spinning plates, spinning […]

  • […] and responded to each of them. I encouraged her to go to my website for my latest article on how hyper-positivity might harm learning. Here was her response: “I loved this post of […]