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Home > Business > Special


The power of positive thinking

Angus Loten, FastCompany.com | June 19, 2007

Jon Gordon is spending most of his summer touring the U.S. in a big yellow school bus. He arrives in New York in early June and hopes to reach San Francisco by the end of the month, followed by stops in Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, and Michigan.

A business coach with a degree from Cornell, Gordon is out to promote the power of positive energy for business success. That, and his new book, The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy.

The book, and dozens like it, comes amid the towering success of The Secret and its now familiar message of achieving your goals with supped up optimism, confidence, and enthusiasm. Some leadership and performance coaches are already calling it the business world's new religion.

"You go to these seminars now and that's all anyone is talking about," says Francisco Dao, the founder of StrategyandPerformance.com, a San Francisco-based executive coaching and consulting firm.

After lying low in the post-9/11 world -- when even irony took a brief hiatus -- the power of positive thinking is staging a major comeback, business performance consultants say. The Secret, Rhonda Byrne's self-help behemoth that repackages positive thinking as a mind-over-matter force governed by universal laws of attraction, currently has more than 3.5 million copies in print.

After Byrne appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in February her publisher was forced to order a record-breaking 2 million reprints to keep up with demand. The book, which hit shelves last November, is already being translated into 20 languages, and according to Atria Books publisher Judith Curr, it's "selling out faster than we can supply it to our customers." That's putting Byrne into the ranks of Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie -- or, in a slightly different vein, Anthony Robbins.

The Secret 's rapid success has added a boost to an already booming self-help market, which is expected to generate more than $11 billion next year in the combined sales of books, DVDs, audiocassettes, seminars, personal coaching sessions, and other self-improvement programs.

Who's buying all this might come as a surprise. A recent survey by Warrilow & Co., a Chicago-based consulting firm for Fortune 500 companies, found that more than a quarter of the nation's business owners had read at least one self-help book within the past 12 months. That's more than the number of owners that had launched or started a new product line, or grew top line revenue by 20 percent, the survey found.

Among The Secret' s acknowledged influences -- besides Socrates, Shakespeare, and Einstein -- are such classic get-rich-quick titles as Wallace Wattles's The Science of Getting Rich, Robert Collier's Riches within Your Reach, and Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. Along with The Secret, each shares a common message about the power of optimism in attracting love, fame, and wealth.

Fast Company Expert Blogger John Baldoni, a leadership coach and consultant, says The Secret 's lure in business circles could have more to do with form than substance. Busy managers, he says, are so pressed for time these days that they've taken a "less in more" approach to reading, favoring business books with short chapters and a power-point style presentation.

Indeed, the book version of The Secret -- itself spun off of a DVD -- weighs in at fewer than 200 pages and is filled with bullet-point aphorisms like "feeling happy is the fastest way to bring money into your life," or "the time to embrace your magnificence is now."

Even so, in an increasingly high-tech, calculated, and risk-averse business world, is blind faith in positive thinking really an asset?

David Mason, a Chicago-based marketing strategist and performance coach, believes the basic principles behind The Secret -- and positive thinking in general -- make for sound business advice.

"There's no question that positive thinking has a place in business," Mason says. For instance, he says a business owner whose mind is set on overcoming debt is far better served by focusing instead on making a profit. "It's just a better approach."

Or, as Byrne puts it, you should "tip the balance of your thoughts from lack-of-money to more-than-enough-money. Think more thoughts of abundance than of lack, and you have tipped the balance."

That's good advice, Mason adds, so long as it doesn't end there. Executives and managers also need real tools in order to get things done, he says. "Too many people want the magic beans. If all they take from The Secret is positive thinking, they're not likely to get much accomplished."

"No one's against positive thinking," adds Dao. "You shouldn't go into business thinking you're going to fail."

Still, he said there's a big difference between going into a deal thinking it can work, and going in convinced that it will work. "It's important to have an expectation that it could fail, and to have something in place if it does," Dao says.

He's also concerned that business consultants might start using the underlying message of the book to convince clients that every good outcome is the sole result of positive thinking.

"They skew cause and effect to work in their favor, so that clients start believing they have all the answers," Dao says. In other words, good results are used as proof that it's working; negative results mean you're not doing right.

That's dangerous, he says, because it reinforces an urge to remain positive, even in the face of constant failure.

"People want answers and that's what The Secret and positive thinking gives them. But if your desire to have answers is greater than your desire for the truth, you're going to make some really bad decisions," Dao says.

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