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Oliver Burkeman: The Negative Path to Happiness and Success

About this talk

“Get motivated!” and “Stay positive!” are common bits of self-help advice. But have we gone too far in our penchant for positivity? Leaning on research, reporter and author Oliver Burkeman shares the counterintuitive insight of how abandoning goals and allowing some negativity in can actually be helpful.

“Theres a real benefit to finding ways to loosen our grip as goal driven people. When you look at successful entrepreneurs…you find they don’t follow this stereotype.” Instead, Burkeman says, we should remain ready to adapt where we are heading and the embrace uncertainty that scares us.

Oliver Burkeman, Author

Oliver Burkeman is a British author and journalist living in Brooklyn. His most recent book is The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012), which looks at the upsides of uncertainty, failure and imperfection, exploring unconventional approaches to flourishing everywhere from the barrios of Mexico City to the world’s largest collection of failed consumer products.

He writes a popular weekly column for The Guardian on social psychology, productivity and the science of happiness, which formed the basis of his 2011 book, Help! How To Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. His work has also appeared in The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalEsquire and Slate.

Full Transcript

Thanks very much. Good afternoon. In the last couple of years in my writing, I’ve been looking at this idea that I’ve come to think of as the negative path to happiness and success. The idea that it might actually be enormous power and potential in turning towards all those messy emotions and situations that we usually spend our lives running very hard to avoid– failure, uncertainty, insecurity, vulnerability, mortality, pessimism. Obviously, mainly just because I’m a pessimistic British grouchy person. And I wanted to monetize that.

But also more sincerely, because I think we’ve swung far too far in the direction as a culture– in America, but also in Europe– in the direction of a sort of relentless positivity that actually turns out to be a big barrier to getting the most creative stuff done. So when I was just beginning to get a handle on this whole world, I did what any newspaper reporter would do, I guess. I went to the epicenter of the culture of positive thinking. I went to a big motivational seminar in Texas called Get Motivated!, f exclamation point. And this is kind of extraordinary. Thousands and thousands of people in a basketball stadium, fireworks from the stage, kind of motivational music. And you’re instructed to jump up and show how motivated you are every few minutes which is a bad scene for a British person like me. It’s kind of amazing. The keynote speaker the day I went was George W. Bush, who, at that time, he was doing a lot of these post-presidential sort of motivational speeches. He’s since kind of pivoted into the dog painting area. We were told over and over again that day from the stage, all the way through by him and by everyone else, essentially, the same message, which is that the only way to succeed is to refuse to countenance the possibility of things going wrong, to think only certain thoughts, to feel only certain emotions, and to rule out the possibility of failure. One of the speakers, a guy called Robert Schuller, who’s a veteran self-help author, and also the pastor of a megachurch in California, told us that, he actually said, we should eliminate the word impossible from our vocabularies. So you can imagine my surprise when I learned a few months later that Robert Schuller’s megachurch had filed for bankruptcy. The uncharitable thought occurred that maybe that was a word he’d forgotten to eliminate from his vocabulary. And then a few months after that, a bit more than a year, I think, the Get Motivated! seminar series itself collapsed, amid all sorts of lawsuits alleging that there were unpaid bills and a very bitter falling out between the couple who ran it. I didn’t bring this up to sneer at their failure. Part of what I find myself saying all the time is that there is no shame, there should be no shame in failure. But I did at that point start to think that if the people whose job it is to promote these guaranteed paths to success can’t make a success of promoting them as guaranteed paths to success, then something is amiss. I’m well aware that this is a kind of an easy target. And I don’t suppose most people in this room need telling that that kind of positive thinking has a lot of limitations. You’re probably aware of the study that says that self-help affirmations, you know, the phrases you’re supposed to repeat to yourself, they can make people feel worse. There was a study where they asked people to repeat the phrase, I am a lovable person, to themselves. And if you have low self-esteem going into that exercise, you end up feeling worth than if you’ve not said it to begin with because it sort of prompts people to come up with counter-arguments about how they aren’t really that lovable. We know as well from some research that in certain contexts, that visualizing the successful outcome of what you’re trying to achieve can make you less likely to achieve it. There’s a lot of stuff like this around at the moment. But I wanted to focus today on one very specific part of that positivity culture, that cult of optimism, as it’s been called, because I think it’s much more pernicious. But precisely because I think smart, intelligent, skeptical people, which I take all of us here to be, are more likely to fall into its trap. And as Scott mentioned, that’s the idea of this fixation on goal setting. The idea that it’s always better to have a clearer, more specific goal, to put more effort into trying to achieve it, to focus as much as possible on reaching that end point, I think actually this can be a real major barrier to achieving the most interesting things. So in the time I have left, I just, first of all, want to tell a short very brief story that I think illustrates that very vividly, the psychological mechanism that’s in play there. And then, finish off by looking at the alternative, which to me is the idea of learning to thrive in and on uncertainty, finding ways to take a step forward, do things that are constructive, take constructive action even when you don’t actually know exactly which way forward necessarily is, or where you are headed. So the story is actually a pretty grim and horrifying one. And it concerns what happened on Mount Everest in 1996. I apologize if this slide looks a bit like it’s the inspirational poster about the importance of goal setting. Put that from your minds. Seriously, this is a pretty awful tale. You’ll know it already, actually, if you’ve read John Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” You’ll know the basics of what happened, especially resonant, actually, in light of recent events there. In 1986, eight climbers died in one 24-hour period. And 15 climbers died during that summer’s climbing season. What makes this not just a tragedy but a mystery as well is that it has always been very, very hard to explain what it was that went wrong. If you don’t know, an outline of what happened is that at a place called the Hillary Step– very, very, very close to the summit, just a few feet– there was a traffic jam, essentially, a whole set of different groups of climbers became bottlenecked. And instead of turning back when they reached the time at which safety demands that they do turn back, so that they don’t end up descending in darkness and in the worst of Everest weather, these climbers, many of them very experienced and professional, pushed on and on, many of them reaching the summit hours after the scheduled time and then becoming lost and disoriented coming to grief later when they were descending. Nobody’s ever really been able to explain exactly why they did that. But it turns out that by coincidence, there was a guy in the foothills of the Himalayas at the time this was happening, who at first glance I don’t think you would imagine would have anything useful to say. He was a burned-out stockbroker. His name was Christopher Kayes. He was on a hiking vacation in the foothills of the Himalayas. He’d gone there just to get some rest and restoration. But it ended up haunting him, the fact that he was there. He’s since become an organizational psychologist. He encountered at the time members of the rescue parties. And he told me that it haunted him, as if that had happened to a member of his own family, because it really reminded him in terms of the basic psychological pattern that he saw as he spent several months and indeed years after that trying to investigate what had happened. It reminded him of something that he’d seen over and over again in a totally different context in the corporate world, where a chief executive would announce some very ambitious goal, get everybody extremely excited about it, use it to pump up morale in the organization, as everybody got more and more focused on this outcome. And then information would start to creep in that maybe it was an unwise goal, maybe it was going to have some really serious negative consequences for the organization. And that will make everyone feel very anxious and insecure and uncertain, as you’d expect. But this is the interesting part. They would be so allergic to feeling that uncertainty, so unwilling to entertain those emotions, that they would commit even harder to the goal. And that is when things would go really wrong. And Kayes makes a really persuasive case that what happened in 1996 on Everest was that the goal of reaching the summit had become part of the climber’s of identity. It was no longer just a really big project outside them that they wanted to achieve, if at all possible. It was their main source of social identity. And so the idea that much uncertainty could be associated with something so fundamental was unacceptable on a sort of subliminal level and led to this over commitment to the goal. Turns out that there are studies among mountaineers, indeed, among mountaineers climbing Everest from 1963, that demonstrated exactly this pattern. This is Chris Kayes summary of that study. “The more uncertain climbers felt about their possible success in reaching the summit, the more likely they were to invest in their particular strategy.” And he calls the Everest disaster of ’96 one of the most compelling examples of how goal setting can lead organizations down the wrong path. Mountaineers, of course, don’t talk in these terms of social identity theory and all the psychological jargon. They talk about summit fever. And there is the American climber Ed Viesturs, who watched this traffic jam from lower down Everest on the day through a telescope. And he says, “in the back of your mind you’re telling yourself, we should turn around because we’re late, we’re going to run out of oxygen. But you see the summit, and it draws you there. It’s so magnetic that people tend to break their rules, and they go to the summit. And on a good day, you’ll get away with it. And on a bad day, you’ll die.” For me I think what that story illustrates and what the studies that are associated with it illustrate are that a lot of the time when we are being very, very driven by very specific goals, we’re not doing something as virtuous as we think. We’re actually in flight from uncertainty. We’re actually trying to find a way to feel like we know how the future is going to unfold, to exert control over something inherently uncontrollable. Sometimes that may lead to very, very cautious behavior. But as you see from here, it can sometimes lead to the exact opposite. It’s not the only downside of what’s been called the over-pursuit of goals. I’ll just run very quickly through a few of the others. There’s some fascinating evidence that the over-pursuit of goals encourages cheating. A little bit of credit first for the title of Lisa Ordonez’s and her colleague’s study, “Goals Gone Wild.” It’s a bad pun, but an interesting study. She and her colleagues gave people word games to do. And told some of them to meet a certain target and self report their progress. And told others to just do your best. And the people given the target were much, much more likely to lie about how far they got. There’s even some evidence that over-pursuit of goals inhibits performance. People do less well in the context of goals under certain conditions. The study I mentioned there is about what happens to taxis and taxi drivers in New York when it rains. Something that some of you who came in yesterday may have experienced directly. On rainy days in New York, it’s not just that the demand for cabs increases, but the supply diminishes, too, because taxi drivers go home sooner– earlier in the day– because they’ve already met their self-imposed income goal for the day, because they meet it faster. So you get this very sort of ironic and irrational outcome where they miss out on some of the easiest income they could earn. And the people who would like to get a cab are getting drenched on a street corner trying to install Uber for the first time into their smartphones because of goals that have been set. There’s also lots and lots of evidence of slightly more conventional pursuit of goal setting that it triggers unintended consequences for an organization, for a person. The classic example– the person who says they’re going to be a multimillionaire by the age of 30 and they succeed in that goal, but at the cost of destroying their health, destroying their happiness, alienating all their friends and family. It’s a question of failing to define accurately what success would look like. I’m certainly not suggesting that you abandon all your goals, because I don’t think it’s wise and you wouldn’t listen to me anyway if I did say it. But I think there’s a real benefit to trying to find ways to loosen our grip on those goals, as goal driven people. Because when you look at what successful entrepreneurs really do, and this may resonate with many experiences in the room, you find that they don’t follow this stereotype, this idea that they have a shining vision of where they’re headed, a very clear idea, and then they stubbornly try to bend reality to make a vision real. What they do, as is revealed by some fascinating studies by Sarasvathy who’s a researcher at UVA. She sat with many entrepreneurs who’d been repeatedly successful over the years. And found that they made business plans when they really had to for someone else. But that wasn’t what they wanted to do. They didn’t do extensive market research. They tried to make a sale so they would get some immediate feedback. They didn’t focus on trying to bring one vision into reality. They we’re ready to move, to adapt, to use whatever means and ideas were at their disposal, to change the definition of where they were heading at any moment. It’s almost a spiritual point, I think, if you’ll pardon that word, the idea that uncertainty and life are very closely connected somehow, and there is something about knowing exactly how everything’s going to turn out, that is a kind of death, I think that Sarasvathy’s entrepreneurs certainly had internalized this message that the great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, in a slightly sexist language of his day, as he put it, “uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” Or as she puts it in her study, “seasoned entrepreneurs know that surprises are not deviations from the path. Instead they’re the norm, the flora and fauna of the landscape, from which one learns to forge a path through the jungle.” So OK, that’s the big point. I think the question obviously is then, how does one do this. How do you put this into practice in the day-to-day? One piece of great advice from Sarasvathy, which has really helped me, anyway, is what she calls the principle of affordable loss. Don’t ask how sure am I that something I’m hoping to do is going to succeed, instead ask, could I tolerate the costs if it was a spectacular failure. If the answer is yes, you could, then that should be all you need to know to take action. Another one of hers, the principal of a bird in hand– don’t ask what would be the best thing to create. Well, don’t only ask that, but also ask, what could be made from the materials, the resources, the ideas, that people that are facing me right now. The analogy that I really like for this, that one writer used was the idea that these successful creative entrepreneurs are not like gourmet chefs who visualize an amazing perfect dish, and then spend months sourcing the ingredients from around the world. They’re much more like– well, I was going to say you or I– I should say, they’re much more like me, coming home at the end of the day, opening the cupboards, opening the fridge, seeing what scraps are there, and throwing something together. That might be a bit dubious at first. And you might have to change the definition of what it is that you’re making as you go. If you do want to set a goal, at least make sure there’s a process goal in there somewhere. These are the goals like, you’re going novel each morning before you go to work. You’re going to have four hours of time per week for your entire organization for deep focused concentration. You’re going to have 10 ideas for new products a week. of the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel, not deep focused concentration time that’s going to lead to something specific, but just focusing on the process. My favorite example of this is Anthony Trollope, novelist, who worked for three hours a day every morning before he went to his office job writing his novels. If he finished a novel in the middle of one three-hour period, he just went on to the next one. An extraordinary commitment to the process rather than the outcome. And then finally, if you need a self-help slogan to sort of counter all those self-help slogans from Get Motivated! This made so much difference to me as a writer, the idea that you do not have to feel like doing something in order to do it. Such a liberating insight. All those motivational messages like the ones you hear at Get Motivated!, exclamation point, it seems like they would help you get things done, but they actually, I think, erect this additional barrier. They say now you’ve not only got to do the challenging important thing, but you’ve got to feel like doing it, as well. And I think that is a lot of a bigger demand, and it’s an unnecessary demand because you can simply feel the unwilling emotions. You can let them be there. And at the same time, you can take a physical action. You can open the laptop. You can open the file. If you’re a writer, you You don’t need to be feeling all the time like doing it. I think this is an example of what the poet John Keats was talking about when he used this now famous phrase, negative capability, the idea that we need to find ways to be able to co-exist with these emotions, with these negative feelings. We don’t always need to be having to try to stamp them out to be absolutely certain about where we’re going, to be feeling good about where we’re headed. I think those capabilities are just as important as the more positive one. Just in closing, sometimes when I talk about this stuff and you may be thinking about this, something comes up called the Yale study of goals It’s very, very famous. It’s in every single self-help book about goal setting you’ll ever come across. The story goes that in 1953, researchers asked their graduating class of Yale University how many of them had specific written down goals for their future. Only 3% said that they did. 20 years later, the researchers caught up with those same former students, found that the 3% who set goals had amassed more financial wealth than the other 97% combined. It’s an amazing finding. Turns out there’s just one methodological flaw with the study, which is that it’s completely made up. It didn’t happen. There was a journalist a few years ago who went to one of the self-help gurus who recommended it. And he said, oh, you should ask the other guy. And that guy said you should ask the other guy. And it went around in a perfect circle.

And I followed it up to with Yale and some other places. It’s a myth. It didn’t happen. And I think a lot of the things that we think, and that we think we know about goal setting, and the fixation on goals, are a myth. And that, if we can find ways to put one foot in front of the other without necessarily knowing where we’re going, we’ll actually end up in some far more interesting, thrilling, and meaningful places. Thank you very much. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

Comments (4)
  • Thatimmorsit44

    Since I, started with my 0wn business, I collect USD 62 every 15 minutes.It s0unds unbelievable, but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out.>>>>>>>>>>>


  • unhappy invalid

    I have to agree. Letting in a little negativity offers a perspective that allows you to see the flaws in things you might not otherwise see.

  • CameronJRoe

    I achieved more success moving to LA with no job, no expectations, and a positive attitude than I did in NY with a driven goal and strategic plan. Positivity in my opinion is always vital, no matter if you have set goals or not. Uncertainty however is what we all should embrace. It creates authentic motivation, vision, and allows us to actually innovate. It’s allows us to live “in the moments”, versus “in the clouds” and open up true creativity. If one can’t see a positive light in a negative situation, they’ll forever be distracted from what’s truly important in their life, hence attracting false positives, greed, money, and ultimately unhappiness. Anyone can achieve whatever they want, but the question is do they actually know what they really want?

    • lalala

      Your comment does a great job supporting this guy’s thesis. People who are negative attract money? If anyone could achieve anything, there would be no poor people in this world. A little negativity might help you check your logic.

  • Farhangk

    Same ideas that i teach my reader at

  • Davey Ineloquent

    myopic positivity or myopic negativity is simply the culprit of stupidity.

    which is why simplistic aphorisms and truisms which make up 99% of “online information” that constitute the internet are inherently stupid.

    this article, indicative of the many that make up “the internet” is just that, and the epitome of stupidity.

    Articles like this prove it. It is somehow considered insightful to point out that “allowing some negativity can actually be helpful”.

    Do you know how overwhelmingly stupid, trite, and such-a-generality-as-to-be-completely-useless this type of information is?

    Additionally, there’s more “about the author” information in this article than their is actual attempted-info, this of course is disregarding how generally useless the very scarce information that is present, actually is helpful/meaningful/insightful.

    This is product placement, pure and simple.

    The new age we live in is still dominated by advertising, capital agendas, and rampant, RAMPANT, mediocrity.

    The Internet is largely a fools game. Actually I take that back it IS a fool’s game. The 0.0001% of quality, novel, and challenging work does not overcome the 99.9999% of sophomoric blither.

    Mediocrity. Nothing more. Nothing less either, sadly, which preys on the human compulsion for information and learning. Just like religion once did. Now the information highway does as well. But in an explosion and incitement of knowledge, no longer useful, irrevocably productive, and present, like trash, litter, global-warming.

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