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Are positive people always more likely to succeed?


The catchphrase of last night’s episode of Mission Survive on ITV was: ‘positivity in adversity’. Bear Grylls drilled this point home to the poor band of contestants before they descended hundreds of feet into a subterranean system of caverns, somewhere in the Costa Rican jungle. Many of the tunnels were flooded and for much of the time the celebrities weren’t entirely sure if they were heading towards daylight or a dead end.
Despite the terrifying nature of the task, the group coped incredibly well. Emilia Fox suffered what one of their support crew described as a ‘total meltdown’, when she first descended into the cavern, but to her credit, the actress successfully recovered and continued to complete the task. Dame Kelly Holmes displayed a similar flash of weakness as she psyched herself up to cross a deep, rushing river, the Olympic medallist having a nascent fear of drowning.
Yet during the discussion led by Grylls at the end of the day, to decide who went home, the adventurer’s decision seemed to be based entirely upon how positive the competitors had remained throughout the expedition. Bear Grylls decided that Emilia Fox’s quietness under pressure was a sign of negativity.
His interpretation of her behaviour got me thinking. If I were to categorize my own personality, I would say that on balance, I was an introvert. I am a writer and publisher. In many ways I feel more comfortable with books than people – certainly large groups of people with dominant, competitive personalities. To Bear Grylls, no doubt, this would be deemed a weakness. My quietness and reticence would be interpreted as a lack of team spirit, perhaps.
I couldn’t help but feel that he’d got his assessment of Emilia wrong. In my experience, it is those who project a relentlessly positive image who are in fact glossing over their self-doubt. Often it is the quiet, contemplative one who possesses the nerves of steel. It is one of the reasons why job interviews often throw up the wrong candidates. Short-term positivity can hide a multitude of character flaws.
To be fair to Bear Grylls, in a jungle context he is probably right. The conditions can be so awful that a negative force within the camp could lead to a general malaise which might result in death. But we would do well not to take his survival mantras too far.
When I hear politicians complaining about their rivals running a ‘negative campaign’, they are often referring to the fact that an opponent is pointing out both sides of the argument – weighing up what might go wrong as opposed to blindly hoping a plan will turn out okay. I know which type of person I would rather have running the country.
I don’t think there’s much wrong in being temporarily miserable in the face of adversity. As long as an effort is then made to turn things around. I’m afraid that too much perkiness smacks to me of dishonesty, a trait I would find much less desirable in a colleague or team member.
Perhaps that’s the reason why we eventually evolved our way out of the jungle. Some negative person stopped leaping around being cheerful, sat quietly on a rock and devised ways of living in more hospitable conditions…

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