Positivity can be overrated. In fact, it is even sometimes harmful.
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about me and the work I do is that I’m always going to be positive with the people I work with. But positivity has its place. Using it at the wrong moment in the wrong context can actually make things worse, not better.
One of my newer clients was playing in his first professional golf tournament since leaving college to turn pro. He called me from his hotel room after the first day when he was sitting near the bottom of the pack and hadn’t performed very well.
“Give me some positivity. I’m getting killed out there.”
In a situation like this, I’m doing my athlete a disservice if I delude him into thinking everything is roses. My role isn’t to be positive. It’s to help my athletes understand the reality of their situation and implement practical, effective techniques for overcoming any challenges and obstacles in the way.
“Well, things are certainly rough right now—there’s no question about that. But your situation is what it is. The past is the past and you can’t change what’s happened up to this point, so dwelling on it or feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help you. All you can do is react and respond to it. You have to use the situation you’re in as a source of fuel. See it as a fun challenge to overcome, and enjoy the challenge of seeing if you can overturn a poor start. You have to thrive off the adversity. You’re more than capable of doing so. You just need to get your mind off your score, play one shot at a time, and focus on being the best you can be on each hole. That’s all you can control.”
Optimism is vitally important, both in Magic and in life. The ability to see the glass as half full, to believe that you can win instead of lose, and to focus on achieving success more than experiencing failure is unquestionably foundational. But people often confuse optimism with delusion. When optimism causes you to ignore the reality of your situation, you’re no longer being optimistic. You’re deluding yourself. That’s not going to help you.
Let’s say I have a garden. My garden is in terrible shape. The grass is brown, the flowers have all withered, the branches are rotting off the trees, and weeds have completely consumed everything. If I stand in my garden and say to myself, “Everything is fine! Everything is perfect! Everything is as it should be! My garden is beautiful!” that’s not optimism. That’s delusion. I’m trying to delude myself into believing that a problem doesn’t actually exist when it does. In this situation, my desire to be positive and optimistic is hurting me. No matter how good my intentions are, it’s not giving me the opportunity to fix my garden.
Optimism isn’t telling myself, “Everything is perfect!” when it’s not. Optimism is looking at that same garden and saying, “Well, my garden is in really terrible shape. The grass is dead, the flowers are dead, the trees are dead, and there’s nothing but weeds left. But with some hard work, it can and will be turned around. I’m going to take this terrible garden and turn it into something beautiful. I have no doubt about that whatsoever.” The first example is delusion. You’re fooling yourself. The second is optimism. You’re acknowledging the problem but at the same time, confronting it with confidence and hope.
How is this relevant to Magic?
Your last tournament didn’t go well. You finished with a 2-5 record where you ended up dropping out of the tournament early. You played well below your truly ability level, playing some rounds outright terribly.
When you think back on that tournament, you could try to be “optimistic” and say to yourself, “it wasn’t my fault! I just got unlucky! My opponents just drew all the right cards! My matchups were bad for me all day! I didn’t play badly—it was just a fluke! Things will work themselves out! It’s just a blip!” In this moment, you’re not being optimistic. You’re deluding yourself. The pain of accepting the reality of your tournament result is too great, so in order to avoid the pain of acknowledging that you didn’t play well enough, you try to convince yourself that your losses had nothing to do with you but were the result of meddling outside forces that were all conspiring against you to make you lose.
In a situation like this, where you experience a poor tournament, you do need to be optimistic in coping with it so that you can come out of the other end on top. The proper way to do it is something like this: “I didn’t play well this past weekend. I didn’t prepare nearly well enough. I left my decision on what to play way too late. During my matches, I didn’t mentally perform as I kept dwelling on my mistakes and my opponent’s good draws. When I lost, I didn’t cope with it well and I let it snowball round after round. I made silly mistakes I don’t normally make and overall, it was poor performance. But this is part of the process. It happens. I accept it. I’m going to think back on my matches, analyze what I did wrong both technical and mentally, find the solutions, and commit to applying them going forward. I will learn from this experience and it will make me a better player. I’m going to use what’s happened as motivation and fuel. I look forward to my next tournament and playing like I know I’m capable of. I can’t wait to play in the next one.”
This is true optimism. This is acknowledging the reality of what’s happened without dodging it, while at the same time seeing the glass as half full, looking for the silver-lining, and choosing to focus on the good possibilities that can happen in the future instead of believing that you’re automatically doomed to lose again.
One of the best ways to move on from a difficult experience is to confront what happened, accept it, and be at peace with it. If you just sweep it under the rug in order to try to protect your emotions, you’re only causing yourself harm in the long run. It will come back around and resurface at another time, and often at a much greater magnitude. If you try to make excuses for your poor performances and bad results by trying to convince yourself they weren’t your fault, you’re simply going to perpetuate more poor performances and bad results, which will inevitably cause things to reach a boiling point that will likely come in the form of an emotional crash.
Making mistakes, losing, performing poorly, and failing. These things are going to happen. You have to accept that and be at peace with it. When they happen, acknowledge them. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t try to convince yourself they’re not happening or try to manufacture a false sense of validation towards them. It’s perfectly okay to say, “Yep, I made a huge mistake!” or “Man, I played so bad today!” These negative experiences aren’t things to fear. They’re signals for change. You just have to be brave enough and aware enough to take notice of the signals.
The key is to acknowledge them, learn from them, and then use them as motivation going forward. You don’t want to dwell on negative experiences. You simply want to use them as a source of growth and fuel for power. Every difficult experience should make you want to be better the next time. Every mistake should make you want to play better. Every loss should make you want to get to the next round and get the train back on track. Every bad tournament should make you want to redeem yourself and you should be chomping at the bit to attend the next tournament. Again, that’s true optimism. It’s having the courage to acknowledge and confront negative experiences while believing in the greatness that can come from them.
Discussing this topic, I’m reminded of one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed while working on location. A few years back, I was working at the Honda Classic PGA Tour event with a client of mine. I was standing at the 18th tee box when the leader, Adam Scott, came to play his final hole. On his tee shot, he hit the ball straight into the water, meaning that he would have to take a one stroke penalty and drop a new ball, reducing his lead by a stroke. As he walked back to his caddie, he said, “Well, that was a terrible shot. Things just got much harder,” and he just kind of smirked to himself. His caddie then asked him, “So what are you thinking?” Adam’s response? “Well, instead of winning with a birdie, we’ll just have to do it the hard way and win with a par. I’ll take my drop, get to the green in one shot, sink the putt, and win that way.”
He didn’t blame his caddie. He didn’t blame his club. He didn’t blame the wind or a bad bounce. He took responsibility for what happened so that he could put it to bed. He acknowledged that things were now more difficult than they should have been and he didn’t delude himself about the situation. But at the same time, he took that negative experience, used it as fuel, fed off of it, and focused his mind on achieving the best outcome possible with the situation he found himself in.
That’s real optimism, and it’s no coincidence that Adam is one of the best golfers in the world. When faced with your own negative experiences, don’t conflate optimism with delusion. Confront the experience, acknowledge what’s happened, accept it, and be at peace with it. Then learn from the experience, use it as fuel, feed off of it, and focus your mind on the great possibilities to come from it.