Oliver Burkeman: We Have a Failure to Accept Failure

Our culture of positive thinking is a sort of allergy, a neurotic refusal to feel one whole swath of the human life. - Oliver Burkeman at IdeaFestival 2013

Do we have a failure to accept failure?

Writing his book, “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking,” Oliver Burkeman said he attended a “Get Motivated!” seminar, which, he added, was a bad scene for an Englishman.

He believes that a fixation on relentless positivity is a barrier to happiness. It hides much more than it reveals.

Burkeman illustrates the point by referencing climbers who died in 1996 on Mt. Everest, a tragedy he attributed in part to an unwillingness to accept the ominous signs that the climbers encountered. The ill-fated ascent is documented in the book “Into Thin Air.”

Numerous studies have shown that we are, in fact, awfully good at ignoring bad information. A conviction that everything will turn out fine despite the evidence is not the antidote.

But because summits of any kind exert enough pressure, there is a danger we should not ignore when external goals become part of our identities.

It takes time and perhaps a willingness to cultivate new skills and habits, but Burkeman identifies four ways “negative thinking” can help us lead better lives.

1) Focus on the worst case scenario. “Game out” how bad things can go. A gratitude that circumstances are not that dire will bubble to the surface. A "defensive pessimism" can provide relief. By bringing contrasting beliefs with reality, we can see how out of bounds those beliefs are.

Successful entrepreneurs, Burkeman says, don’t spend a lot time persuading themselves that things will go just right. They ask themselves what’s the worst thing can happen, and whether or not they can take the risk. As Peter Sims did last year, Burkeman says that placing little bets is a better and ultimately less risky strategy for reaching satisfying outcomes.

2) "Non-attachment," a Buddhist idea, encourages us to passively observe our interior lives. The point is not to calm down your mind, but, rather, to relate to our feelings much like we relate to the weather. You don't need to feel like doing something in order to do it.

3) Recognize uncertainty is an incredibly creative force. Because we don’t in fact know what will happen, any quest for certainty can block the search for meaning. "It's the struggle to feel secure that creates feelings of insecurity" Burkeman says, quoting the great countercultural philosopher Alan Watts.

4) Remember, you’re going to die! Well that was a bit jarring. But there's something to be said for keeping the really big picture in mind when it comes to putting life into perspective now.

Posted at the top is an IF interview with Oliver Burkeman in which he discusses the role of awe, the idea of "opensure," and what he lately has been reading and studying. Enjoy.


Image by Amber Sigman