Of Winners and Losers: The Dark Side of "Positive Thinking"

Donald Trump's Predictable Attempted Coup

Posted Jan 04, 2021 |

I sometimes encounter patients who have done well by our society’s standard metrics of success, but have reached a point in their lives when they're "in crisis".  At the extreme, these individuals may be extraordinarily successful: the CEO of a profitable tech startup, a prize-winning professor at a prestigious university, a former Olympian turned sports professional. There are many circumstantial factors why such a person might decide to consult a mental health professional, but one thing these individuals tend to have in common is they are competitive. They ask this question: “I’ve done fantastic. Anybody can see that. Why do I feel this way?”

To the extent they’ve experienced psychology previously, these patients tend to have gravitated toward a philosophy of "positive thinking", formulated in its most benign form by the late Norman Vincent Peale. Peale was a minister and his message included a redemptive spiritual component.[1]  But there are permutations of this philosophy that lack that aspect. One variant advocates that the vast panoply of humanity can be pigeonholed into two basic categories: “Winners” and “Losers”.[2]  Needless to say, adherents of this philosophy seek to ensure they always fall into the "Winner" category. This is a worldview, reportedly learned from his father, espoused by the 45th President of the United States.[3] It's a philosophy well-suited to competitive people who fully buy into a society whose professed tenets include that everyone has an equal chance to succeed through effort and can-do attitude, and that success is measured by wealth, physical attractiveness, romantic partner, attire, zip code, and club memberships.

Sattahipbeach/Shutterstock
Even success has a dark side
Source: Sattahipbeach/Shutterstock

Yes, this philosophy serves competitive people well, up to a point. Even in its mild form, it can lead to a personal dead-end when its practitioners wake up one day and realize: "There’s gotta be more to life than this". That’s when they come to see someone like me. 

In its extreme form, especially as practiced by someone with a touch of insecurity and narcissism, this philosophy can lead to darker, wider consequences. Just beyond positive thinking lies the attitude that one must always win, no matter the cost. Individuals who think this way sometimes lie and cheat to achieve goals. They demand that subordinates ignore their unethical behavior in the service of always "winning", being "the best" or being "right"; cementing loyalty by rewarding acceptance of this twisted reality while punishing any dissent. Rather than admit their failings, they often engage in childlike psychological defenses such as projection, misattributing their own faults and bad behaviors to their peers and opponents, and blaming subordinates for negative outcomes or even emotions originating within themselves. Such individuals tend to leave a trail of misery behind them.

It's easiest to illustrate this with a couple of biographical examples:

Napoleon Bonaparte rose from country-bumpkin obscurity via a low-ranking army commission to become Emperor of Europe. At his peak, he ruled the entire geographical area now covered by the European Union. Critical to his success was that by all accounts (even those of his enemies) he was extraordinarily energetic, self-disciplined, and well-informed—not to mention a highly capable administrator and tactical military genius. A Corsican born in 1769, he would have identified with the more extreme end of contemporary American “positive thinking".

Napoleon believed in winning at all costs. He cheated at cards and board games but typically repaid those who played along (ie, rewarding sycophantic loyalty).  His inability to admit defeat served him in more important ways: Before gaining absolute power, his campaign to conquer Egypt was an abject failure. Although he did conquer territory temporarily, France could not hold it long-term. His ground forces were decimated due to his naiveté and hubris: Napoleon was unprepared for environmental challenges in the Middle East, nor did he anticipate the local populace would respond with guerilla warfare against their Western "liberators" (a bit of history George W Bush should have reviewed before invading Iraq in 2003). 

Despite these and other setbacks, Napoleon managed to turn the situation to his advantage by a ploy, the 18th-century equivalent of “failing your way to success.” He quietly slipped away from Egypt, beating news of his losses back to Paris. Upon arriving he engaged in a campaign of misinformation, selling his Egyptian fool’s errand as a glorious victory (while blaming deceased or disaffected subordinates for his mission failures). Within a few months, he capitalized by staging a coup d’etat in the legislative chambers, ushering in his reign as an absolute ruler - another bit of history contemporary Americans might be wise to remember.[4]

 Public Domain (Paul Delaroche, 1840)
Napoleon after the crest, contemplating his change in fortune.
Source: Public Domain (Paul Delaroche, 1840)

Napoleon employed this attitude “of refusing not to win” throughout his career. It worked again and again until it didn’t. The end came at Waterloo, after which the British made certain he could never “fail his way to success” again by locking him up on the barren island of St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He died in 1821—a broken, lonely, and resentful middle-aged man—less than six years after his defeat at Waterloo and a scant decade after the climax of his power. He died ingloriously - surrounded by no adoring family, court, or army - but in near-isolation, choking on his own blood, downed by gastrointestinal cancer.[5]

A more recent biographical example is Steve Jobs, a poster boy for modern American entrepreneurship. By conventional measures, Jobs was extraordinarily successful; he was a self-made millionaire by 23 and among the wealthiest men in the world at his death. Without him there would be no Apple Inc, no Pixar, no iPhone; we might still be using flip-phones. Jobs accomplished all this because he was a master of personal computing innovation and design who insisted on creating consumer products perfectly matching his vision; he also insisted on winning. 

His dark side included a need to always be the smartest guy in the room: he would witheringly shoot down his subordinates’ ideas as “brain-dead” only to resurrect them a short time later as his own. This was so common his associates coined a term for it: “The Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field”; if you wished to remain employed you just rolled with it. Jobs was also a man who asked friends for confirmation that his fiancée was physically attractive enough to be his wife, and a man who repeatedly denied paternity to his eldest daughter, treating her appallingly throughout her childhood, alongside her mother, an ex-girlfriend. 

I never met Jobs, I am no direct authority on his personality, but from what I’ve learned about him, including from a few people who did know him, it’s clear that while all describe him as inseparable from Apple’s success, many found him thoroughly unlikable if not downright misery-making; few if any describe him as a contented person. Had he lived longer perhaps Jobs would have matured and mellowed a bit; there were some glimmers of this in his final years. But in an odd parallel to Napoleon, Jobs died in his 50s from a similar cause, pancreatic cancer.[6]  

Between Waterloo and Napoleon's death, the English poet Percy Shelly reflected in a poem, Ozymandias, about all that was left of a once-mighty “Winner”: 

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Like Shelly, perhaps this is a moment for us to reflect that there is more to life than outward success, and affirm that some American values are more important to defend than winning at all costs.

References

[1] Peale, Norman Vincent, The Power of Positive Thinking (New York City: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), 2015)

[2] Waitley, Denis, The Psychology of Winning: Ten Qualities of a Total Winner (New York City: The Berkeley Publishing Group (Penguin), 1984)

[3] Trump, Mary, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2015).            See also: https://www.nj.com/opinion/2016/07/are_trumps_deals_presidential.html; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election-2020/trump-us-election-tweet-winners-losers-biden-b1637519.html

[4] Note: This blog was published 2 days before a mob, drummed up by Donald Trump and his allies, stormed the US Capitol seeking to overturn the 2020 Presidential Election. Consistent with his character and personal philosophy, Trump did not admit he lost at the polls, did not concede defeat, did not congratulate his opponent, and refused to attend Biden's inauguration. He will continue to dispute the outcome of the election and undermine the next President long after he has left the Oval Office.

[5] Roberts, Andrew, Napoleon: A Life (New York City: Penguin Books, 2014)

[6] Isaacson, Walter, Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography (New York City: Simon & Schuster, 2011)