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The Upside of Negativity

Like a lot of people in the room, I took plenty of inspiration from Peter Diamandis' Game Changer session this morning on abundance. To briefly summarize his points: The world is becoming a better place, not worse, and there is great power in working collectively to solve big problems---which are becoming easier to solve. More people means more solutions, he argued, so long as people stop thinking small and stop thinking negative.

Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation and pioneer in the nascent asteroid-mining industry, said negative thinking is an aspect of human behavior that has no useful purpose today; it's a remnant of an earlier time when human beings would be attacked by predators, human or animal, if they didn't have good intelligence on where the threats are. Threats certainly do exist now, Diamandis said, but in the overall scheme of things the world is a less dangerous place than it used to be. (Stephen Pinker published a much-discussed book last year, The Better Angels of Our Nature, drilling into this point.)

Sounds good. But here's what I came away thinking about: Why can't negativity be inspirational?

I'm not trying to be stubbornly counterintuitive here. I get Diamandis' complaint that a barrage of negative news on cable TV can be dispiriting and unproductive. But a sense of threat can also be a powerful motivator. To turn it back to Diamandis' work, the fear of being outpaced (if not taken over) by the Soviet Union was a chief reason why the United States launched the Apollo program. Fear of diminishing resources inspires our pursuit of alternative energy sources; fear of disconnection inspires technological innovation. The X Prize's various efforts thrive on the creeping sense that something's about to hit the fan.

There's a fine line between feeling threatened and thinking negative, and leaders ought to be mindful of the distinction. There's nothing entirely wrong with worrying that things will crumble if you don't act---the question is whether you act effectively on that emotion. If we can put a man on the moon, we can negative-think our way through anything.

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Comments

Seems like several concepts are intermixed here: fear, negativity, worry, threat.

Threats and the fear they engender have long been used as a leadership tactic to persuade people of a need to change. And it can be effective so long as the threat is imminent, the consequences are seen as very negative, and the path forward is not seen as too painful or the benefits are seen as outweighing the pain. For an example of ineffective fear/threat leadership just look to conversations about the deficit.

But is this the way we really want to lead? Shouldn't we be creating a culture of aspiration, one where the benefits of the future to be created are seen as so desirable that they are worth the risk and challenge that might be required? For me, I'll stick with the Kouzes and Posner definition of leadership. It's the "art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations."

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