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Staying up in a down world

December 04, 2012

THE American motivational speaker and author Zig Ziglar, who died last week aged 86, was a legend in many parts of the US, yet practically unheard of in Britain.

There’s a smugly self-flattering way Brits might explain that: we’re too hard-headed and unsentimental, this argument goes, to fritter millions on corny books with titles like See You at the Top, or Staying Up, Up, Up in a Down, Down World (to mention just a couple of Ziglar’s more than 30 works).

Even in America, though, Ziglar and the brand of inspiration he represented had long since begun to seem like museum pieces. The self-styled ‘Master of Motivation’ was a direct link to the world of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, authors who rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Great Depression with the hopeful thought that, given the right mindset, a happy and meaningful life might be possible despite the odds. It was an individualist message but not a mean-spirited one. Nor was it delivered without humour. “People often say motivation doesn’t last,” Ziglar often said, in response to his critics. “But neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.”

The point of positive thinking, Ziglar insisted, was to provide motivation for doing hard work; nothing was possible without labour. The notion that merely having the right thoughts might be sufficient by itself would have struck him as absurd — yet these days that’s exactly what many of the most popular self-help and popular business writers claim.

This problem extends beyond publishing: consider the plight of conservative commentators and strategists during the recent campaign for the US presidency, many of whom behaved as if the key to a Mitt Romney landslide wasn’t studying real-world polling, but just believing sufficiently hard in the goal.

Unbridled positive thinking fuelled by the self-help industry, the social critic Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, may also have helped bring about our current financial crises.

A belief that success must be both guaranteed and easy is an excellent path, if you’re an investment banker, to catastrophic failure. But Ziglar’s claim was never that life could be effortless.

Nonetheless, the Ziglar approach seems to be on its way out, and this may be just as well. A powerful body of psychological research testifies to the fact that the techniques of positive thinking are often counterproductive — that repeating upbeat affirmations, for example, can make people with low self-esteem feel worse, or that visualising the successful completion of a goal can sometimes make it less likely to be achieved.

Meanwhile, the challenges we face, from economic to environmental crises, are surely too collective and complex to benefit much from a philosophy consisting solely of exhortations to individual hard work, generosity and cheer. — The Guardian, London