Accentuate the Negative?

We’ve all heard the advice: stay positive; a positive attitude is good for your health; visualize success, and you’ll find it. All this is true. Too bad our culture hasn’t caught on.

Yesterday I attended a grant writing seminar given by Joe Hoffman of Barry Isett and Associates. I’ve known Joe for 20 years — he is one of the most sincere people I’ve ever met. He had a positive message for non-profit and for-profit firms alike, stating that grant money is still available contrary to a common belief that government funding and philanthropic accounts have dried up. To become eligible for what’s there, though, one must write a grant application. Joe didn’t sugar-coat it; the process is very competitive. To win funding, the grant writer has to hit a nerve or pull on the reader’s heartstrings. That’s when the conversation turned negative.

Joe said that one common mistake applicants make is they leave out what will happen if they don’t get the money. They need to say that buildings would crumble, children would starve, pets would lose homes or employees would be laid off, but they prefer to talk about the good things they’ll do when the money comes in. To get the award, they have to accentuate the negative.

Let’s face it, fear causes action…it’s engrained in our survival instinct. Salesmen know it, employers know it, parents know it, and politicians know it. Today, if you want to motivate someone, you scare them. No wonder we’ve got stress problems.

Look at Gillette’s (now Henkel) advertising campaign for Dry Idea® antiperspirant, “Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat.” They’re not saying you’ll succeed with a fresh, confident appearance. They’re tapping into the fact that inevitable perspiration will make you seem weak. They’re selling the negative aspect.

Employers threaten a red check mark in your file if you’ll be late. Mothers tell their naughty kids, “wait until your father gets home.” Campaigning politicians warn us about the other guy’s corruption. Ministers yell that we must believe, or we’ll burn. Financial gurus illustrate that our money will run out at age 65. Environmental advocates say the shores will drown in climate change. And funders ration their money off to the firms who will suffer the the most pain without help.

Even when there is truth in the message (the other guy IS corrupt, the shores ARE sinking, the money IS running out), this is no way to live our lives. How are we supposed to stay positive when so many messages come rooted in fear?

Step one is to recognize the tactic. Step two is to understand why it is being used. Our instincts are being set against us to manipulate our decisions because ours is a tricky and competitive world. We need to understand that before we can calm down, act rationally, and develop positive thoughts.

It’s true that I find it much easier to visualize money disappearing from than filling my wallet. I’m working to fix that image every day. How well do you do at imagining financial freedom, a tranquil home life, a safe and happy family, a graceful aging, and peaceful world?

The program we’ve been watching — the one with hidden negative angles — has been running for a long time. Sure, we can play the game when we must, but we must stop when the game is over. Accentuating the negative is no way to live.