Three years ago Zappos founder Tony Hsieh launched a ambitious project to transform downtown Las Vegas into a tech startup hub. It hasn’t exactly as planned. Nellie Bowles reports on a series of suicides by people involved in the project, and how the cult of positivity in the tech community may have contributed:
Hsieh seemed to work hard to keep each suicide quiet. Entrepreneurs told me there were few community resources made available, no large-scale gatherings, no cathartic outpouring, and that they felt confused about what was happening and why it was never addressed. Many in the Downtown Project, including a crisis counselor who worked with the parents of one entrepreneur, pointed to Hsieh’s philosophy — his obsession with happiness, and with imposing it upon the community — as one of the problems.
“Suicides happen anywhere. Look at the stats,” Hsieh said, sounding agitated, when I asked him about it one evening on folding chairs in the Learning Village, where speakers regularly come to lead sessions. “It’s harder for people who are really good students in school. Then they move in to this, where there is no instruction manual, and you have to be MacGyver on your own.”
My question appeared to make him uncomfortable. He scooted two seats away.
Julie Norem: It’s a strategy for dealing with anxiety and helping to manage anxiety so that it doesn’t negatively influence performance. If you feel anxious in a situation, it doesn’t really matter if it’s realistic or not, you feel how you feel. It’s hard not to feel that particular way. If you feel anxious, you need to do something about it. Usually people try to run away from whatever situation makes you anxious. But there are other ways of dealing with it. Defensive pessimism is one way.
When people are being defensively pessimistic, they set low expectations, but then they take the next step which is to think through in concrete and vivid ways what exactly might go wrong. What we’ve seen in the research is if they do this in a specific, vivid way, it helps them plan to avoid the disaster. They end up performing better than if they didn’t use the strategy. It helps them direct their anxiety toward productive activity.
According to a great deal of research, positive fantasies may lessen your chances of succeeding. In one experiment, the social psychologists Gabriele Oettingen and Doris Mayer asked eighty-three German students to rate the extent to which they “experienced positive thoughts, images, or fantasies on the subject of transition into work life, graduating from university, looking for and finding a job.” Two years later, they approached the same students and asked about their post-college job experiences. Those who harbored positive fantasies put in fewer job applications, received fewer job offers, and ultimately earned lower salaries. The same was true in other contexts, too. Students who fantasized were less likely to ask their romantic crushes on a date and more likely to struggle academically. Hip-surgery patients also recovered more slowly when they dwelled on positive fantasies of walking without pain.
I hate to break it to you, but if you’re reading this and your name isn’t Steve Pavlina, then you don’t exist. Nope, you’re just a dream character in his reality. Only his identity and consciousness are real, only his impulses matter. You and I, well, we’re merely projections of Pavlina’s inner world. In his reality, all these images that appear to be other people, other subjective consciousnesses, are actually just dream characters. Or at least these are some of the results of Pavlina’s recent experiments into what he has aptly named “Subjective Reality.”
My last two posts have been about what I’m calling “the logic of evil”—the self-justifying rationalizations that lead a sincere seeker to become a psychopathic guru. In what could only be explained as an act of The Universe, I just happened to cruise by A-list personal development blogger Steve Pavlina’s blog today and found that he had produced a great example of exactly what I’ve been writing about. In fact, in the last few months he has been experimenting with taking the plunge into full and complete narcissism—and even Solipsism—which even he admits that he won’t be capable of turning back from once he has fully done so.
1. Get a poofy haircut that only a rockstar could pull off.
2. Get rid of every thing you own, and make up for it by purchasing as much boutique yuppy clothing, shoes, and apparel that you can fit in a large backpack.
3. Use the backpack full of clothes and move to a foreign country with great beaches where you can feel wealthy by being around desperately poor people.
4. Talk about how many desperately poor people are around and how you wish you could help them.5. Take advantage of desperately poor people by leveraging your powerful American money against the pitiful local currency.
5. Take advantage of desperately poor people by leveraging your powerful American money against the pitiful local currency.
Duff McDuffee writes about his experience as a follower of Tony Robbins:
Unfortunately few contexts are relevantly similar to firewalking, as I found out the hard way. Achieving most personal outcomes requires patience, persistence, and flexibility, not an intense emotional display and impulsive action.
…creative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.
The new view is that creativity is part of normal brain function. Some scholars go further, arguing that lack of creativity—not having loads of it—is the real risk factor [for anxiety and depression commonly thought to be a trait of creative people]. In his research, Runco asks college students, “Think of all the things that could interfere with graduating from college.” Then he instructs them to pick one of those items and to come up with as many solutions for that problem as possible. This is a classic divergent-convergent creativity challenge. A subset of respondents…quickly list every imaginable way things can go wrong. But they demonstrate a complete lack of flexibility in finding creative solutions. It’s this inability to conceive of alternative approaches that leads to despair. Runco’s two questions predict suicide ideation—even when controlling for preexisting levels of depression and anxiety.
Here we come to understand a looping program for spiraling depression, if not bipolar—built into the very framework of the cult of aggressive positivity found in Tony Robbins’ workshop, but also found in other popular self-help workshops, books, CDs, blogs, eBooks, coaching programs, etc. As with most chronic psychological problems, the attempted solution makes the problem worse. The alcoholic drinks to make his hangover go away. The sweet-tooth eats sugar to reward himself for going all day without sugar. The unsuccessful self-helper pushes away fear only to then be more unprepared and therefore more likely to fail, becoming even more depressed with each failure. By not thinking about negative potential problems or future scenarios, one never develops the skill of being able to handle them. Of course as soon as you teach your people to think critically, you’ve lost most of your potential money as a guru—both because they get better and thus aren’t as eager to buy more of the same, but also because they think critically about your sales messages too. One can still make a respectable living this way, but will probably not reach the same dizzying heights of fame and fortune.
Robbins claimed in his public TED talk—with now over 2.1 million views on YouTube alone—that he has never lost a client to suicide. Since his organization doesn’t do followups with all of his thousands of seminar attendees (only a select few that are used for video testimonials), this claim is totally corrupted by confirmation bias. There have been many reports of suicide and psychosis following intensive weekend workshops like Robbins’ on anti-cult forums like Rick Ross. Were these caused by the workshops themselves, or would they have happened anyway? The question of causation is tricky business, especially with lawyers under the employ of seminar organizations actively suppressing such negative information (note to such lawyers: while I can neither confirm nor deny any claims as to whether anyone has ever committed suicide as a result of attending a Tony Robbins event or any other workshop, I won’t be removing this post which merely states my opinions and is protected free speech—see also.)
University of Illinois Professor Dolores Albarracin and her team’s research on motivation:
Researchers tested these two different motivational approaches first by telling study participants to either spend a minute wondering whether they would complete a task or telling themselves they would. The participants showed more success on an anagram task (rearranging words to create different words) when they asked themselves whether they would complete it than when they told themselves they would.
In another experiment, students were asked to write two seemingly unrelated sentences, starting with either “I Will” or “Will I,” and then work on the same anagram task. Participants did better when they wrote, “Will I” even though they had no idea that the word writing related to the anagram task. A final experiment added the dimension of having participants complete a test designed to gauge motivation levels. Again, the participants who asked themselves whether they would complete the task did better on the task, and scored significantly higher on the motivation test.
This research focused on the relationship between negative emotionality and learning from errors. Specifically, negative emotionality was expected to impair learning from errors by decreasing motivation to learn. Perceived managerial intolerance of errors was hypothesized to increase negative emotionality, whereas emotional stability was proposed to decrease negative emotionality. All the hypotheses were tested in a laboratory simulation. Contrary to the prediction, a positive association was found between negative emotionality and motivation to learn. The effects of perceived managerial intolerance of errors and emotional stability on negative emotionality were as predicted. Moreover, exploratory data analyses were conducted at the level of specific negative emotions and revealed differentiated effects of specific negative emotions on learning from errors.
In his “The Lifestyle Design (un)Manifesto” Eric calls for the transformation of lifestyle design “into a collective of people who can influence the greater culture for a sustainable future.” Can lifestyle design be reformed into something more socially valuable? Put to work on the right problems, perhaps it can. But there are a few questions that we have to ask first.
Are the people behind the “lifestyle design movement” – that is to say, the people who are actually profiting from it – serious about solving real-world social, environmental, and economic problems? If all they’re interested in is cash and kicks, then there’s probably no point to this discussion. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, because I think there are at least a few among them who are earnest.