Last week I met someone who I think I can safely say was one of the most negative people I have ever met.
I spent much of a day with him during one of our Musikscool events. He was 15: polite, well dressed, articulate, and with an outlook on life which shocked me so much, I did not know quite how to take it. He made Eeyore look like the world’s greatest optimist.
He was working in a team of Marketing people, who were trying to develop ideas to raise £5,000 for charity in just one day. I first really noticed him when someone came up with the idea of going to the local supermarket and raising money from the local shoppers.
“What do people think of that idea?”, I said.
“Terrible”, he replied.
“Why’s that?”, I asked.
“It’ll never work.”
I stuck with it, determined to see whether I could “unconvince” this young man, to whom failure of this idea seemed inevitable.
“Why won’t it work?”, I asked.
“They won’t let us do it.”
“How do you know?”
(I’m aware at this point that 8 sets of eyes are on me, wondering no doubt who is going to win this arm wrestle.)
“They just won’t.”
Aware of the time, and recognising I wasn’t going to win this one, I let it go and sent the volunteers on their way. They came back with a sizeable contribution towards the target.
This pattern went on all day: use of the word “terrible” at the first sign of an idea, supported by the belief that “it won’t work.”
I was fascinated, and despite being under intense pressure to keep the ball rolling with my group of easily distracted teenagers, made time to try and understand him better.
He told me he always sees the reason for not doing things, because so often new ideas don’t work. Far better to see the downside, as you are then unlikely to be disappointed.
He reminded me of the worst boss I ever had in this respect. You could call him the ultimate Pragmatist. The first day I joined his team, he told me this:
“Treat all your restaurant managers as lazy, lying, thieving bastards, and you will never be surprised and will occasionally be pleasantly surprised.”
I signally failed to execute on this command, being a natural born optimist, and found it the most stressful job of my life. Thankfully a year later I was able to contrive a reasonably dignified exit.
My young friend taught me several things last week. Firstly, how energy sapping I find it when I meet someone who doesn’t have a similarly optimistic outlook to mine. Secondly, how useless I am at dealing with negativity (I found myself walking away from him at one point when he lobbed another doom bomb into the room just as I was about to brief a theatre full of 500 schoolchildren.)
But he did get me thinking. He is I guess the ultimate pragmatist – the Black Hat wearer, who we are told we need to have in every team in order to ensure that the loud can-do optimists like me don’t charge ahead and do things we shouldn’t be doing. We need people like him if we’re not going to charge up blind alleys or make a hash of things because we haven’t thought it through.
Upon reflection, he was displaying an admirable amount of honesty – something we could do with more of at work. Instead of pretending we agree to things, and showing support when in fact we secretly think the boss’ idea is doomed to fail, it would be so much better if we could take what I call the “metaphorical honesty tablet”. Say what we really think, and say it straight. How refreshing to hear it around the meeting room table.
“That, Bob, is a terrible idea.“ When did you last hear language like that?
I have concluded that I can only handle this resource in very small doses. I need people to critique my ideas, but I also need them to tell me how good they are.
The other thing I learnt was how embedded a view of the world can become at such an early age. If a belief system like that can be formed by the age of 15, no wonder we find it such a struggle to unlearn when we are adults.
I can feel my energy draining away right now, writing this. I think we should finish with something more uplifting. Here’s a song written during the event by the kids, and recorded that afternoon. If this young lady doesn’t step straight into Adele’s shoes, I’ll eat my hat. Give me one minute of this and I’ll take a day of “terrible”, any time. Enjoy.