The Value of Focusing on the Negative

In a world where optimism is the rage and focusing on the bright side of things is the backbone of self help, negativity is often viewed as a character flaw. But have we got it backwards?

Knowing What Could go Wrong
Prior to liftoff, it’s customary to run airplanes through an extensive checklist to seek out anything that could go wrong. This is not because airports are pessimistic, its because doing so is the best way to ensure the plane will have a safe flight.
In his book entitled, Antifagile , Nassim Taleb provides the following observation:
Telling people NOT to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last 60 years. Getting rid of smoking provides more benefit than being able to cure people of every possible type of cancer.
Protecting against the Downside
Warren Buffet has proven to be one of the best and most reliable investors of all time. He has an astounding and proven track record. Yet Warren attributes his success not in always knowing the answers, but in avoiding errors.
He has always maintained that his first rule of investment advice is “never lose money”, which sounds pretty negative. In one of his annual shareholder meetings, Buffet revealed that he and his investment partner (Charlie Munger) aren’t particularly brilliant, they just work very hard to avoid mistakes.
Wisdom from Failure
One of the most charming bits of parenting advice I’ve ever encountered came from a poster I saw in a parenting class. It went something like this:
Just because I give you advice doesn’t mean I know more than you, it just means I’ve done more stupid sh*t.
I’ve actually used that line because its the most rational way I know to convince my kids that my advice has value. We learn from mistakes. It’s a huge element of gaining genuine wisdom.
There’e more to negativity that just protecting against the downside. It’s also very practical, because learning what not to do is often easier and more reliable.
Failure often provides glaring reasons, which is fantastic. When a lifelong smoker dies prematurely of lung cancer, we can say with some certainty that to avoid the same fate, you shouldn’t smoke. That is very reliable information.
Success is a much trickier beast, because it’s often very difficult to differentiate skill from circumstance. When someone lives to the age of 100, you may hear all sorts of reasons explaining this persons longevity, but determining whether any of its reliable is pure guesswork.
Learning from failure is a huge part of success. Focusing on the negative has value precisely because bad things do happen, and assuming they won’t is a recipe for disaster.
We’d all certainly rather have our skydiving instructor be a little realistic and pack an extra chute on the basis that something could go wrong. But accepting the possibility of a failed parachute is not the same as assuming it will – and this is a big difference.
Focusing on the negative doesn’t make you a pessimist. Its perfectly reasonable to maintain a positive outlook while accepting that things aren’t always going to go our way. But assuming bad things will happen is a much different mindset. It’s a cynical point of view, one that can have damaging effects.
As Matt Ridley pointed out in his book The Rational Optimist ,
If you teach children that things can only get worse, then they will do less to make it untrue.
There are many cynical mindsets that confuse the value of focusing on the negative with just being negative. One promotes hope and inspires a search for solutions. The other accepts doom and instills inaction.
The world we live in presents us with many problems, many that we have only ourselves to blame. But every generation in human history has faced what it deemed to be the worst of all possible scenarios, and yet humanity persists.
Perhaps the best recipe is simply to protect ourselves against the downside, and optimistically expect that we will continue to find ways to persevere. Then we get to work on solutions.
This is a tremendously empowering mindset. But we should never dismiss the value of focusing on the negative.


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