It took a while, but I came to a conclusion: Negative people are not good for me.
Before you roll your eyes at the elementary nature of that observation, consider what I mean by negative people.
And, consider what I mean by “not good for me.”
Martin Seligman calls them pessimists. People who trade in “yeah, but” and “it will never work.” They are schooled in the feelings of unease and doubt. They perpetually scan the environment for threats and, unsurprisingly, always find them. Even in their most nascent forms, threats are exaggerated and nourished until they become reality for the pessimist. And in communicating their consternation they trigger the listener’s lymbic response to threat. They push the amygdaloid button and flip the flight alarm (or, in my case, the fight alarm). They sap us of our creative what-if energy. Our neurological-emotional systems are much faster than our creative-executive systems so when threatened they take control of our mind and body. The fear response, even when barely triggered, is a powerful force in the human brain circumventing judgement and creativity. Pessimistic people are afraid and create fear in others. They do not inspire critical thinking or enhance wisdom.
I heard the narrative for years: Negative people are critical thinkers. And their perspective is important, even valuable. We need their point of view, so the narrative goes, to make the best decisions and to formulate the most effective strategies. And I believed that narrative for a while. For far too long, actually. Until it occurred to me a decade ago that critical thinking and cautious perspectives can also be obtained from people who are not governed by smoldering fear.
Pessimistic people have an explanatory style grown out of a lifetime of worry and subtle, foreboding fear. Their life-lenses are tinted with a dreadful hue. Defaulting to what “has been,” their role in flights of creativity is to emphasize the unrelenting gravitational pull of “reality.” They bore small holes in the neurology of vision and hope. In the best of situations they are slow leaks in the ships of adventure and achievement. In the worst case they are Dream Vampires.
I know this seems harsh. If so, my next thought is downright severe: Get away from them. Get them off your teams. Uninvited them from planning and problem-solving meetings. Drop them from interview panels. I’m not saying they are worthless human beings. I am saying they are the most expensive people on project. They are hidden coral reefs in the sea of opportunity. As difficult as it may be to see them and their impact, once you see it, move on without them.
Then surround yourself with people enthused about the What and Why and engaged in the How. Build your teams with gritty, persistent, tenacious and resilient people full of the love of what is and what can be. Read their emails, listen to their podcasts, drink their Scotch (thank you Robert Alt).
This strategic shift in my life has paid off. My companies are populated with enthusiastically creative people at every position. They brim with messy innovation. Threats, real ones, are turned into opportunities. Weaknesses are humorously shored up. Confusion and conflict fuel genius.
We’ve said No to pessimists and jumped into the cold lakes of challenge only to emerge time and time again reinvigorated and giddy with possiblility realized.
Take stock. If you have pessimists on your team, study their impact. If you discover they are not really pessimists but just having a “bad hair day,” coach them, encourage them and move on. But if they are Vampires preying on hope, if their bad hair day has lasted two years, it’s time to move on. You have to much to create, too many gold nuggets to discover, to wait another month.