Business Musings: Positive, Pleasing, and Optimistic
Those of you who follow my business blog know that this past year has been hard on me. Illness, moving, lots of change. But I was determined, once I arrived in Las Vegas, to make the best out of the situation. Yes, we moved quickly. Yes, I’d been ill. Yes, Dean was caught between the old home and the new, as the brunt of the move fell on him. But we were starting new, and because we were starting new, I wanted to set some mental ground rules for me.
I wanted to be positive. I had moved to a condo downtown in a city, which had been a dream of mine for my entire life. We had had enough money to make this dream a reality, even if the circumstances forced the change on us quickly.
I felt that I was faced with an emotional choice: I could wallow in all that I had lost, all that had changed, all that had failed—or I could look forward and enjoy each day.
Of course, I chose the second. I wanted to enjoy each day, so I had to catch myself occasionally complaining about things (my health still, Dean’s necessary absence) and turn those around. Not into something positive. Every day both good and bad things happen to each of us. So I wasn’t going to “spin” the bad into good. I was going to find the good, though, and focus on it instead of the bad.
About a week after we moved here, I bought coasters from the little shop downstairs. be happy, they say. They’re a daily reminder of that positivity. I’m using one right now, as I type this.
Note that those two words are a command. Be happy. Be.
I do my best.
Old habits are hard to change. And I do complain a lot about a lot of things. Plus, the political news here in the U.S. is tough. It also triggers bad old memories. And, as I write this, Las Vegas is acknowledging the horrors it went through exactly one year ago, with the largest mass shooting in the last fifty years. (I can’t say ever, because that ignores the history of the people of color in this country.) The city is somber right now, and listening to the survivors. It’s also figuring out how to move forward, despite what’s happened.
Speaking as a newcomer here—one who can’t compare life before and after as a resident—the city has made tremendous strides toward recovery. Las Vegas Strong, is the phrase used after the shooting. And now, folks are saying Las Vegas Stronger. I’ve spoken to a lot of survivors, who are up front about their struggles and their fears. I’ve also spoken to residents. I’ve known about how hard it is for many Las Vegas residents—particularly the ones under twenty—to mingle in a large crowd. It takes an extra measure of courage for them to walk into a festival or a run and stand outside, with all the buildings (and possible snipers’ nests) towering above them.
Yet people do it every single day.
So, I’d been thinking a lot about attitude since I got here. I read a lot about it too.
I picked up two different books by famous musicians, both of which stress attitude. I didn’t pick up the books because they stress attitude. I picked them up because I admire the men who wrote them, and because I want to learn from them.
The first book, which I read a month or so ago, is by Questlove of the Roots. His book, Creative Quest, is all about creativity. I recommended it in my Recommended Reading list for August.
I found the book inspiring. I want to reread it, but in a different fashion. I want to take individual chapters and do a deep think about them. I plan to do so soon, and hope to write about those chapters here.
I’ve only just started the second book. It’s The Rhythm of Success by Emilio Estefan. I had a circuitous route to the book. I bought the entire Broadway in Vegas package so I could see the touring Broadway shows (figuring that’s as close as I’ll get to NY until my health improves), and included in the package was Get On Your Feet which is a musical based on the life of Gloria and Emilio Estefan. To be honest, the show wasn’t on my wish list of Broadway shows to see. I was indifferent. But, since it was part of the package, I was happy to attend.
The musical has great music, of course, and the touring company is wonderful. But a few things interested me. First, the pre-show, for season ticket holders, included a discussion with Bernie Yuman, one of the producers of the show.
He threw out random tidbits of information, such as the fact that both Gloria and Emilio Estefan are deeply involved in the touring production—so much so that they often come to shows along the tour. Members of the Miami Sound Machine are in the band that tours with show.
Usually, the tours aren’t as hands-on as the original production, but here, for the Estefans, this was part of their brand. I made a mental note: their control went into everything.
The show itself is about artists creating their lives and maintaining control of their work and their work product. While I found the musical entertaining but not particularly memorable, I left singing the music (which I have loved for decades) and determined to find out more about the Estefan business empire.
The only book I could find was the book Estefan “wrote.” I put that in quotes, because there had to be a ghost writer on this—or at least, a transcriber and organizer. The book is very personal, and written in a colloquial tone, that sounds like Estefan was sitting across from the reader, telling a story. Which is probably how the book was assembled. But it was assembled—and that person (or persons) were not listed.
At first, the tone put me off because the book didn’t feel “deep.” Don’t ask me what “deep” means, because I can’t tell you. I have a hunch I was fighting against the messages in the book rather than the tone itself.
Now that I’ve settled in, I’m finding the book fascinating.
Estefan mines his own life for examples of what makes him successful. The early chapters are about his immigration experience out of Cuba. The book seems like it was written as a rebuttal to all the horrors that are happening in the U.S. to immigrants right now. But it wasn’t. It was published in 2010—and provides some object lessons about immigration to people on all sides of the aisle.
The Questlove book and the Estefan book have a lot in common. Because they’re both in the self-help category, they are written with an eye toward things that will help the reader. So some of the negative aspects of life get glossed over, and maybe a few things are portrayed in a more positive light than they normally would be.
Questlove is much more introspective than Estefan, and that shows in his prose.
But they both stress the importance of attitude, and I don’t think I would have noticed their advice if I weren’t in the right place to receive it.
Estefan has an entire chapter on being positive. I haven’t yet finished the book, but as I scan the table of contents, I note that the chapter titled “Be Positive” (that command form again) isn’t the only chapter title that includes an admonition toward controlling your attitude. I’m not going to deal with the other ones because I haven’t evaluated them yet, but this one struck me hard.
He starts that chapter—which is chapter two—with this:
Being positive is a decision. You don’t just wake up positive every day; you have to work at it. And a positive attitude is one of the best resources that you have. (The Rhythm of Success by Emilio Estefan, Celebra, 2010 P. 13)
Let me go at this a bit backwards. My ex collected business books in the early 1980s, so the genre was in its rah-rah infancy. Most of the books were about being relentlessly optimistic so that all good things will come to you. In particular, my ex liked the classic of the genre: Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, which cites a positive mental attitude as essential to growing rich, along with having a “pleasing” personality. I conflated those two and dismissed them, partly because I do not have a “pleasing personality.” I am too blunt to be obsequiously nice all the time. As you can probably tell, this was a source of great conflict between me and my ex. It also meant that my ears and eyes were closed to that positivity argument for decades.
As it happens, I now agree with Estefan and Napoleon Hill that a positive mental attitude is necessary for success in business—as well as life. I had to think about it, though, to get to that agreement, and what started me thinking about it was this sentence:
Being positive is a decision.
It is. It really is. It has taken me decades to learn that, but I’ve watched enough people now to know that there are people who—in the words of a friend of mine—find the dark cloud in every silver lining. Those people can take the best thing in the world, find the tiniest flaw in it, and turn that flaw into a major big deal.
When I was younger, I could fall down that rabbit hole. Now, I generally walk away from those people, because nothing will satisfy them. And it’s a choice. They choose to ignore the good stuff and only see the bad. A lot of pop psychology calls these people “toxic personalities” for good reason: hang around with them long enough, and you will drown in the negativity.
I try to avoid that as much as possible. Which comes to Estefan’s second sentence in that paragraph.
You don’t just wake up positive every day; you have to work at it.
That caught me, because I am not a morning person. In fact, Dean has instructions not to discuss important things with me in the first hour that I’m awake, because I’ll invariably say no or find some flaw. I’m groggy. My brain takes time to boot up, and I hate making decisions in that time. I also think that some of it was a lack of light. It’s been easier to wake up in Las Vegas, in the bright sunshine, than on a rainy day in the Northwest—or, going back to my childhood, a gray snowy day in the Midwest.
So when Estefan said that You don’t just wake up positive every day; you have to work at it, he was talking directly to me. I do have to work at it. Usually over breakfast.
But—oddly—I am relentlessly—well, not positive. But optimistic. And that’s part of what Estefan describes here. He talks about finding the positive in every situation, and then referred to the Great Recession as a time of opportunity, despite the hardship.
I talked about that during the recession when I wrote the Freelancer’s Survival Guide. I knew that a lot of people lost their jobs during that hard time, and would try to freelance. I didn’t want them to fail, so I wrote a book. Yes, I saw the negative—the job loss, the potential for failure—but I knew that in that situation, with the right help, people could find their personal success.
I don’t think I could freelance if I was continually negative. I have to see the opportunities ahead of me, but more than that, I have to believe that if I work hard, I will be able to achieve success with those opportunities.
(Ironically, as I write this, the jazz station is playing Gregory Porter’s version of “Pick Yourself Up.” Go look at the lyrics—it’s being positive. Trying.)
I work hard. As my friend Kevin J. Anderson says, the harder I work, the luckier I am. Estefan says that as well. At the end of chapter two, he wrote, “I prefer to stack the odds in my favor by working hard and planning, but [my father] taught me the value of looking on the bright side….and it has served me well my entire life.”
I don’t think you have to be relentlessly cheerful or a “pleasing personality” to be an optimist. You can see the downsides to everything. But you should also be willing to take a chance, to work hard despite the odds.
If you’re a freelancer, and if you’re a businessperson, you are, by nature, optimistic. You will find the positive in the negative. Not the blind positive, but a knowledgeable positive. You will find the unusual way out of a tight situation—not because you’re smarter than everyone else—but because you believe there is a way out, and you won’t stop until you find it.
Drive factors in here, and stubbornness to. But that core belief—the one that you will succeed, eventually—that belief will enable you to be successful as an artist and a business person.
It sounds circular, I know. But you have to believe in yourself if you’re going to do any kind of creative career or any nontraditional business career. Even if you don’t express that belief to others. It needs to be at the core of your being.
And, as Estefan says in that chapter opening, you have to work at being positive. It’s a choice. And it’s like any other muscle. If you’re going to use it, you’ll need to train it. You have to train yourself to look for solutions, and train yourself to believe that there are solutions in the first place. You have to be forward looking, believing that the best is ahead of you. You can’t change the past, but you can grab at your future with both hands.
And that reaching toward the future…it’s a positive thing. Even if it scares you to death.
Questlove talks about attitude throughout his book as well, just not in the cheerful Napoleon Hill way. Questlove doesn’t go for the big command statements like Be positive. Instead, his writing is a lot more nuanced—and didn’t feel as global on an initial reading. But I’ve come back to parts over and over again, in some ways because they feel familiar. People who have been in the creative arts for a long time like he and I have find ways to cope with the ups and downs of the creative life.
In his final chapter, which is titled “Success and Failure,” Questlove explores both. I’ll probably deal with these in a different way in later blog posts, but for the sake of this one, I want you to notice the lessons he has here in attitude.
In his writing about failure, he’s writing about how to turn a negative into a positive. He writes:
Failure is not fatal. For starters, it can be a motivator….Struggle and frustration and fear … can be great tools for learning to focus and recharge yourself. [Creative Quest by Questlove with Ben Greenman, Ecco Press, 2018, p. 246-247]
If you’re going to focus and recharge after failure, you’re learning to control your attitude. Yes, you failed. But you’re going to learn from that failure. You are choosing to be positive.
He then cites David Bowie. (I can’t find this quote anywhere except in this book—not that I’ve looked hard.) Apparently Bowie said that creativity is “one of the few human endeavors where you can crash your airplane and walk away from it.”
Bowie was talking about risk-taking in the creative realm. The consequences aren’t as dire as risk-taking in the “real world.”
But Questlove takes that example a little farther than Bowie intended.
Questlove writes this:
When you walk away from your crashed airplane, you’re playing with house money. You can do anything—and hopefully you will….The only correction I would make to [Bowie’s] formula is that true creative people don’t walk away from [their failure]. They walk toward the next thing. [Creative Quest by Questlove with Ben Greenman, Ecco Press, 2018, p. 247-248]
Think about how powerful that statement is. They walk toward the next thing. Failure stops most people. It crushes them. How many times have you heard someone say that they tried something, and it failed, so they gave up?
The true artist, and the true business person, figures out what made them fail, and then gets up and tries again.
Or in the words of the song I just heard, they pick themselves up and dust themselves off and start all over again. I always tell people it doesn’t matter how long they remain flat on their face on the floor. What matters is that they get up again.
Face forward, move on. That’s how to be positive. Make the failure part of your story, but not the whole story.
The whole story is the story of trying. Of doing. Of stubbornly believing in yourself and your work when no one else does.
Artists use their failures to move forward. Business people believe they can succeed. They just have to find a way to do so. They don’t wallow. They move.
Being positive is a choice. A practiced choice.
And one that will serve you well, throughout your entire career.
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“Business Musings: Positive, Pleasing, and Optimistic,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2018 by Kristine K. Rusch