Positive Way To Meet Problems

( Originally Published 1950 )

WE ALL ENCOUNTER circumstances under which we must choose either the positive or the negative alternative. We can fight or retreat, conquer or surrender, make an effort or side-step the issue. The way in which we select and use our alternatives in meeting our problems, frustrations, and failures may to some extent depend upon our inheritance and background rather than on cool reasoning. But, to a large measure, it is our choice of positive or negative response that determines the outcome. We need full understanding, therefore, of the power of the positive approach and the dangers of the negative attitude in order to place ourselves in a position to control our own destinies.

Psychologists have determined that there are but four basic ways in which we can respond to problems. Two of these are positive responses and are classified as either direct or indirect. Two are negative and may take the form of either retreat or evasion. From time to time, each of us may respond in one or all of these ways; but when the two negative responses are overworked, we are moving toward our own complete frustration. Too often the negative reactions seem to offer the easiest way out; yet if they become chronic we are apt to find ourselves enmeshed in failure.

Which of these four ways of meeting your problems have you usually employed?1

You use the direct positive approach. You walk up to the front door of your problem. If it is locked, you figure out a way to open it or you get in some other way. This is the self-confident, self-sufficient, direct positive attack that realistically faces facts, then analyzes them, identifies the obstacles, and goes through, over, or around, or destroys the blocks. You know what you want. You ask for what you want. You take direct steps to attain it.

Of course the direct approach must on occasion be tempered with a degree of caution. If used unwisely and without judgment, it is disastrous. The soldier who rushes in against overwhelming odds will in all likelihood meet death. There are, of course, those individuals who have an overinflated feeling of self-sufficiency, an overdose of self-confidence or of desperation that sets them against the world and invites destruction. But the paranoiac self-sufficiency of the emotionally underdeveloped is rather rare. The development of a direct, effective, positive self-sufficiency is the goal of every maturing person.

The values of the positive direct attitude are exemplified in the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. It would have been utterly impossible for him to attain the minor triumphs that culminated in his great victory abroad if he had yielded to negative impulses. Soon after his appointment as Commanding General, European Theater of Operations, Eisenhower reports in his Crusade in Europe, he made his first call on President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill at the White House. "Tobruk, in the African desert, had just fallen to the Germans and the whole Allied world was thrown into gloom," the general writes. "These two leaders, however, showed no signs of pessimism. It was gratifying to note that they were thinking of attack and victory, not of defense and defeat." There we have the general's evaluation of the positive as compared with the negative attitude. It is further revealed in his simple formula for military success. General Eisenhower summed it up this way: "Plan to the least detail. Then strike like death itself."

This same positive approach is valued by H. G. Wells, who in his Experiment in Autobiography cites the two guiding principles of his life. First, "If you want something sufficiently, take it and damn the consequences." Second, "If life is not good enough for you, change it; never endure a day of life that is dull and dreary, because after all the worst thing that can happen to you, if you fight and go on fighting to get out, is defeat, and that is never certain to the end which is death and the end of everything."

The values of the positive direct attack are well known to Elizabeth Arden, who built up her cosmetic empire to the point where she valued it at more than the $17,000,000 offered for its purchase. Arden hammers home the positive approach to her executives in business conferences, frequently exclaiming, "To get along in this world you've got to fight, fight, fight."

Even babies find the rewards that await the positive approach. Frank Moseley tells of seeing a baby trying to get over the fence to get his red ball. "It wasn't a very high fence, but then the baby wasn't a very large baby," he says. "He had only a few hundred days, a half-dozen words, and very little experience with fences or anything else.

"I started to help, but my mother put her hand on my arm.

"Leave him alone,' she said gently.

" Tut the fence is too high.'

" Of course it is, but he doesn't know that,' she said. `That's the lovely thing about children—they're always trying to do the impossible and sometimes they do it. They're always crying for the moon, and some day, perhaps one of them will get it.'

"The baby, meanwhile, had put his small chair against the fence and climbed up. Seeing that it wasn't high enough, he put a box on the chair, and with much puffing and panting, hoisted himself up, hung red-faced a moment, then dropped with a fat thud to the other side, picked up his ball and grinned at us in gleeful triumph. "The fence was too high for him, but he didn't know it."

1. Men and women of courage and fully justified confidence in their mature judgment, clear thinking, and abilities are the chief users of the positive frontal attack on their problems. This direct approach is particularly valuable in the analysis of a problem and the laying of constructive plans for accomplishment of desired ends. It is of great value in preventing the defeat of good planning by the negative minds that surround us all. This attitude does not permit pessimistic defeat. These positive-minded individuals are the ones who are decisive and who take direct action to get desirable results. They would accomplish even more good if they were not slowed down by the necessity of frequently using the semipositive indirect approach in dealing with others.

2. You use the indirect, or substitute, semipositive approach. Instead of walking up to your problems and facing them directly and squarely, you try the side doors and windows; you use indirection that is somewhat disarming; you make small, diffident, tentatively fearful approaches; you try to gain your ends through using others to "front" for you as substitutes and thus make a more positively direct attack than you dare to make yourself. You hint for what you want, but withal you are reaching for what you desire and the solution of your problems.

There are many who are masters of indirection, and it has its merits. Chief of its values is the fact that often there is less opposition to indirect approaches, intelligently made. Frequently indirection permits the other person to maintain a cherished feeling of self-esteem. The direct approach may imply that the other fellow is being "handled" or instructed or pushed, while indirection may make him feel he is in the driver's seat. Because they are negativistic but also want to feel completely adequate, there are many who are very unwilling to have their ideas or behavior directly influenced or dictated by anyone else. Your problems so often involve others that it is well to keep in mind that resentments or opposition may often be minimized by indirection.

The wife who says directly, "For heaven's sake, go in and shave before dinner," may well have an argument and no other result. But if she uses indirection thus, "You've plenty of time to shave before dinner, and do you know you are never handsomer than just after shaving . . ." well, what do you think?

There are many men and women who have slow, negative minds, who almost instantly set their minds against change and automatically say "No" from feelings of fear and a desire for safety first. Feeling almost always precedes thinking, and it is the truly positive and matured person who interposes thinking between feeling and decision plus action. Recently a businessman told me about making a casual, friendly suggestion for discussion with his partner. The partner instantly froze and next day marched in with lawyers to boorishly protect his "rights." Doors were slammed. Actually no rights were involved that couldn't have been completely protected and both partners and others would have been materially benefited by the discussion. As it was, all who were most directly involved suffered a dismaying loss they may never be able to recover. The businessman says he failed to realize fully the deep-seated fears and feeling of insecurity that prompted his partner to leap from those feelings to negative decision and negative action without interposing thought and full hearing of the possibilities of the proposal. He blames himself, for he really knew that his partner's par for the course on major decisions is two or three years. The partner, doing some delayed positive thinking after his negative response, realizes that he slammed the door so churlishly it would take a big man to reopen it gently —and much as he might like to be, he simply isn't that noble. The negative attitude is a destroyer.

3. You run away, and the retreat is negative. This seems to be the very simplest of solutions. Didn't someone say, "He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day"? Obviously, there are times when no one but a fool would do anything but run away, but all too often retreat is a rout, a blind flight to no place where a positive stand will be taken.

Such flight practice can become chronic, a habit of life. Retreat strips one of all sense of dignity and any degree of actual security. The frightened bunny rabbit will scamper away at the most minor of threats. Bunny is so accustomed to running that the very flight seems to multiply his fears to the point where often he will simply freeze in complete capitulation, ready for the kill.

Human bunnies, stimulated by their negative fears, may dodge and run until they, too, freeze and quiver helplessly, awaiting the deathblow to all sense of dignity. These human bunnies withdraw from others and refuse to face their problems. They become neurotics. They acquire phobias. They shed relatives and friends and responsibilities. They become the daydreamers discussed more fully in a later chapter. The daydreamer fancies himself as possessing characteristics he is too ineffectual to attain while his own negative brakes are locked. He goes fearfully through life playing a game of "let's pretend" and may even strut and pose and kid himself he is fooling others as much as he tries to fool himself. He never dares to face the fact that any reasonably wise individual sees him exactly as he presents himself—a pretender—and glances away in pity. Two-legged bunnies even develop the runaway technique to the point where they have the complete withdrawal of amnesia or find themselves in a "snake pit" pretending they are Napoleon or God. Yes, the negative attitude can even speed that!

Some of these fugitives from the realities of life's problems acquire favorite illnesses. In her book Mind and Body Dr. Flanders Dunbar calls these pet illnesses "the beloved symptom." She states that even the great statesman Gladstone often developed a cold, which was not imaginary, in order to avoid addressing a hostile audience. Adults as well as children develop headaches, hives, stomach pains, and even asthma to escape their problems, such as school, uncomfortable business contacts, lovers' quarrels, and other problems.

The runaway may eventually become completely submissive. He runs up the flag of unconditional surrender without even attempting a good fight. He is the doormat negative with a welcome sign woven on his back by his own attitude. He scarcely realizes that while people often use door mats they never respect them. He is the feeble, frustrated, negative coward who scarcely even got started.

4. You eat sour grapes; you evade the issue; and this, too, is negative. You view your desire but don't even try either by direction or by indirection to attain it. You simply say, "Aw, shucks, I don't want it very badly, and anyhow it's not much worth having."

I frequently use illustrative anecdotes about others, and this time I'll tell one on myself. When I was a lad, I scorned the person who was the so-called "life of the party," the leader in conversation and small talk or in presentation of his own ideas. Such individuals fascinated me, but I told myself, "I wouldn't make a show of myself that way. Reserved—that's me. Modest—that's me. I don't want to be the life of the party anyhow." It wasn't until I became fully aware of the power of the positive and the fruitlessness of the negative attitude that I was able to see clearly that I was gulping sour grapes by the basketful. I was actually envious of a quality I saw in others but didn't possess, because of my negative viewpoint. There is a tremendous daily consumption of sour grapes in this land of the free.

5. You bask in dependency on reflected glory, completely submissive. You wag the tail of your dependent little personality as you fawn round the heels of successful, satisfied, positive personalities. You are a hangeroner, an apple polisher, a me-too character, haunting others in the hope that through some magic of osmosis you will eventually absorb something by reflection from the positive-personality stars. You have seen some such folk publicized, perhaps, standing on their heads at the opera or drinking from slippers at night clubs. The type is exemplified by the tale you'll remember—if you are old enough—of the man who struggled to "shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of John L. Sullivan" when the Irishman was the world's champion heavyweight.

You are helpless in "a world you never made." You cry out by your manner, "I'm weak, I'm helpless. Someone please fix the world for me." You are extremely sensitive to your environment and its changes. You are the ingratiating weakling attaching yourself to the strong. You are capable of resorting to emotional blackmail of your spouse or others. You are suggestible, emotional, perhaps artistic and adept in fantasy. And you feel guilty because of your sense of dependency and probably hostile at heart because you have surrendered. You know you can never attain a feeling of self-sufficiency without fighting it out on positive lines, and your pose is that you are too weak to try. Because of all this, you tend to be a vicious, somewhat hostile character, ever fearful of being unmasked, and you hope your dependency racket may make you accepted and esteemed by all. But you suspect this will never be realized, and you are less and less competitive, less and less sure of yourself. Negative dependency has become the pattern of your ineffectual life.

This type inspires recollection of the experience of a vigorous Northerner on his first trip in the Deep South. He heard a hound wailing as if broken in both heart and body. The visitor exclaimed to a native :

"Can't you hear that poor dog howling? He must be in dire trouble. Why doesn't someone help him?"

"Well, suh," the Southerner explained patiently and without any show of concern, "that there dawg ain't in no trouble atall. He's jest a settin' on a prickly pear plant, and he's jest too doggone lazy to move."

Furthermore, if a helping hand had been extended, the dog might have snapped at it.

But there are positive ones who reach out for the best. Fred Fritch tells us about one of these. When he was on Luzon Island in the Philippines, he was seated outside his tent when a small native boy approached.

"Do you like coconuts, sir?" he asked.

"I told him I did, so he borrowed my knife and walked across the road to a close-by coconut grove. I watched him select the tallest tree and climb to the top, as agile as a monkey. Soon he returned with three big coconuts.

"As he squatted down to hack open the nuts, I asked, `Why did you climb the tallest tree when there are coconuts in all the trees? Do the best coconuts grow in the tallest trees?'

" `Oh, no, sir,' he replied. 'But the best coconuts stay longer in the tallest trees.' "

The best things of life are awaiting the grasp of the positive people who scorn the negative attitude. The sound fruits of life with their rich juices lie at hand for the taking, and life's best coconuts are up there within reach if we but make positive effort to acquire them.

Often we don't take more of the best fruit simply because of an acquired habit of defeat. We even think it is all right for others to reach out and take their full share, but we hold back when it is our turn. This is a rather ignoble acquiescence. To a large extent it is due primarily to severe limitations we have unwittingly placed upon ourselves.

Sometimes emotional blocks that were acquired in youth are unconsciously holding us back from full realization of our potentialities. There are instances where the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist may be needed to discover the causes of the negative shackles that imprison us. But more often we can reveal our problems to ourselves. Careful study of the four approaches to life outlined in this chapter may well reveal that unintentionally we have slipped into the negative attitude. If you will review your victories, you will undoubtedly find that it was only when you used the first or the second of the positive approaches that you met with success. Think back on your defeats and unresolved frustrations, and you may very well find that one or both of the negative attitudes predominated at those times.

The next time you feel yourself frustrated and begin to assume that you lack the ability to achieve your desire, before shrugging and tossing solution aside as beyond your grasp, ask yourself these questions and search for clear honest answers:

1. Isn't it just possible that my feeling of inability is almost entirely self-imposed?

2. Isn't it possible that the obstructions I visualize are simply self-created ghosts of objections?

3. When did I first feel that I lacked the ability to achieve this specific desired goal, what caused that feeling or conviction, and have I any good reason for believing that this feeling is still justified?

4. Have I actually tried to accomplish this thing I'm convinced I can't achieve? When did I try? If I didn't try, what's the matter with trying now, actually trying, instead of defeating myself without starting? If I did try and failed, how many factors entering into that defeat can I list on a sheet of paper? Are those factors still in existence? Can't some or all of them be eliminated now? Did I really give it the good old college try, or did I just peck at it halfheartedly and expect it to fall in my lap?

5. Does the thought of actually achieving this goal give me a nerve system full of worry and anxiety? And if so, what am I really afraid of? Where did those fears come from, and do they really make sense, or are they just nagging little alibi fears to help me put off making a real effort?

6. What am I gaining by not actually tackling this proposition? If I attained it, would it conflict with some cherished ideas or beliefs or comfort I've become accustomed to? Would it enhance my feeling of self-esteem for certain, or does the thought of possible failure make me side-step the issue? Would its accomplishment put unwanted burdens and obligations on me and thus disturb my customary way of life?

7. Isn't it true that my answers to these questions have largely banished a number of my self-imposed limitations? Isn't it true that up to now I haven't given this objective a thoroughly positive consideration and that a positive attack might well give me a desirable solution?

Psychologists have discovered that one of the chief reasons why you may have difficulty in solving ordinary problems of living is that you can't quite crystallize your problem. You can't analyze it soundly so that you can go to work on a sound solution. Yet it was agreed at a meeting of the Midwest Psychological Association in Chicago that analysis of one's problems is the most important step toward solution of the difficulty.

What would you give for an easy-to-apply scientific method that would give you a sound solution to more than 50 per cent of your problems almost immediately and also start you on the way to sound consideration of the other 50 per cent that can't be solved so rapidly? Almost anything, because it would be one of your most valued possessions? Well, it is yours in the next few paragraphs—yours for the taking. And it is amazingly simple.

This four-point method of analyzing and solving personal problems is a gift presented by Professor Robert H. Seashore, chairman of the department of psychology at Northwestern University, A. C. Van Dusen, associate professor of psychology, and their collaborators, graduate students Liston Tatum and H. C. Klopp. Their experience has shown that this method is particularly valuable in reducing big problems to little ones and that it is valuable in overcoming inertia and helping anyone get started toward sound solution of his problems.

Here is what you do. Take a big sheet of paper and divide it into four columns. At the top of each column, in this order, write:

1. General aims

2. Difficulties and advantages

3. Solutions

4. Marks of a good solution

There you have it, and it is simplicity itself. The psychologists advise that you "don't waste time asking your friends for help, or by spending hours in an armchair mulling the matter over aimlessly."

Dr. Seashore reports that by forcing the subject to state the problem specifically the "Northwestern system" achieves more than 50 per cent of the solutions immediately. The other three steps complete the process by eliminating to a large extent the disorderly thinking that so often makes for fuzzy consideration.

"With so many of our clients feeling some insecurity in either making plans or getting up confidence to begin, we feel that completing the four-column analysis and plan of action helps the individual to gain confidence in himself," says Professor Van Dusen. "The steps of the method serve as a reference point on a sort of 'road map' for future action, and interrupt the 'worry cycle' which prevents people from solving their problems."

An instance of the plan in action is cited by Professor Van Dusen. An adult student in one of the night classes came to him with her career problem. She felt that she had capacities beyond her present duties as a private secretary.

Using the Northwestern system this woman filled out the four columns. Under Solutions she put down "Proceed with caution; get advice from other supervisors; take personnel courses." With this clear-cut plan of action before her she did the things listed. The very process gave her self-confidence. Then she asked her firm for a supervisor's fob and got it!

The system works! It has worked for many others. There is no reason why it can't work for you! What's that problem that confronts you now? Get busy with the Northwestern system, and put it to work now.

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