The Secret to Success: Winning With Pessimism

Research by a George Washington University professor suggests that being overly optimistic and goal-oriented can actually keep you from success.

By: Michael Gaynor

Even if you can dream it, you still probably can’t do it. And even if you build it, they probably won’t come. That’s the takeaway from research by Christopher Kayes, associate professor of management at George Washington University, who has spent years studying how positive thinking and goal-setting in business and politics can lead to failure.

The idea came to him after witnessing the disastrous 1996 climbing season on Mount Everest—15 people dead in one spring, events chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Kayes saw that climbers were ignoring risks in pursuit of their idealistic goal. “Most mountain-climbing accidents happen on the way down,” says Kayes. “The climbers may get to the summit, but they didn’t notice this storm coming in. There are unintended consequences that can result in anything from injury to death.”

By thinking positively and concentrating on an aspiration, a person narrows his or her focus and becomes detached from reality.

In politics, several characteristics mark a relentlessly upbeat pursuit that’s doomed for disaster. Most notable is what Kayes calls “face-saving behavior”—the tendency for people to become so absorbed in their goals that the pursuit becomes a part of their identity, making it harder to give up when things go awry. He points to the GOP platform on immigration reform before the 2012 election—fences, self-deportation—that had been the party’s aim for so long. Republicans became incapable of abandoning it, even in the face of election-altering demographics. Kayes saw the same fixation in Everest expedition leaders who had promised clients they’d get them to the summit—and then didn’t give up when the weather turned, for fear of ruining their reputation. Says Kayes: “When we set a goal, we engage in this behavior that says, ‘I’ve got to accomplish this or I’m a failure.’ ”

His new book, The Breakdown and Rebuilding of Learning in Organizations—due later this year—looks at similar failures in the intelligence community’s search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “They called it a ‘slam-dunk,’ ” Kayes says. “They told everyone that they knew it so well, they didn’t even need to open it up to criticism.”

The power of negative thinking comes in when an organization can challenge prevailing beliefs like that one and adapt to potential pitfalls. That was the case ten years later when that same intelligence community chose to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound. Inside accounts have depicted the process leading to the raid as a constant battle of second-guessing and worst-case-scenario planning.

“Fast-forward a decade and a lot of those people are still in play in this decision to go after bin Laden, but they took a very different approach to how they assessed the information,” Kayes says. “It’s an improvement in learning—and how to make more intelligent decisions.”

This article appears in the April 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.