“The Power of Negative Thinking”

23 Feb

Positive thinking only gets you so far. It’s negative thinking which really defines success. This is the argument put forward in an interview between Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield, and The Red Bulletin (Red Bull magazine). Hadfield explains the point

“Self-help gurus are always advising us to think positively and envisage success, but it’s about as helpful as thinking about cupcakes. Just thinking about them isn’t going to help. It’s more important to think what could go wrong with a mission. Visualize failings, not success. That’s what’s essential to survival as an astronaut. I was an astronaut for 21 years, but I only spent six months in space. The rest of the time, I was looking into every detail that might have gone wrong during a mission. Once you’ve understood all the potential risks and you’re forewarned against them, fear no longer plays a part in your thought process”

In my research, and the research I draw upon, this argument runs like a red thread through accounts of decision making, planning and adaption. For example, Crandall et al (2006) argue that experts have a far greater knowledge of “what could go wrong” with decisions, plans and strategies than less experienced and accomplished staff across a variety of professional fields.

Weick at al (2007) in their analysis of resilient organisations, which includes NASA, identify that resilient organisations have an obsession with the question “what could go wrong?” In other words, they are prepared for failure and far more likely to learn from it.

In Jim Paul’s (written with Moynihan, 1994) account of lessons learned in losing large sums of money on the trading floor, the authors cite “avoiding losses” as the most significant strategy for success. By focusing on failure, on what NOT to do, the chances of success significantly increase because at the very least, a trader will stay in the game longer.

The “power of negative thinking” counter intuitively increases confidence as people, teams and organisations are far more prepared, and positive, about their ability to absorb failure and adapt. I’ve researched and seen the above manifest in fields as diverse as clinical decision making and construction site management (examples are here)

Weick (2009) refers to the ability of an organisation to adapt through adverse circumstances as having the “requisite variety”. Requisite variety is the sum of an organisation that has systematically learned from failure, analysed and then shared the lessons. A learning organisation, focused on “negative thinking” creates a reservoir of responses, both formal and tacit, which can be applied to complex, surprising and uncertain events. Chris Hadfield, in the quote below, sums the concept up perfectly

“I never experienced any fear when I got into a spacecraft— not because I was brave, but because I’d practiced solving every problem, thousands of times. Being well prepared makes all the difference. It minimizes any fear and gives you confidence”.


Paul, J. Moynihan, B. (1994) What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Columbia Business School Publishing

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, R. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioners Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. The MIT Press

Weick, K. Sutcliffe, K. (2007) Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. Jossey-Bass.

Weick, K. (2009) Making Sense of the Organization, Volume 2: The Impermanent Organization. John Wiley & Sons

The Chris Hadfield interview with Red Bull, the Red Bulletin, at the link below



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