Book Review: The Power of Negative Thinking

I have never been a basketball fan, so I went into reading The Power of Negative Thinking wondering if I would “get it.” I knew who Bob Knight was (even as a non-basketball fan, how could you not?), but had no idea what to expect. I’m happy to report one need not be a basketball fan to thoroughly enjoy this lively, accessible, conversational-style look at the power of overcoming positivity with negative thinking.

There has been a backlash over the cult of positive thinking over the last few years, and with good reasons. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America is one of the first books I read on the subject. And over the years, a great deal of research has come out warning about the dangers of unfettered optimism. But usually, optimists dismiss discussion of negative thinking as being depressing, pessimistic, or just giving up.

Knight starts his book with a very simple premise that overcomes this objection. Negative thinking is not about giving up or being a pessimist. Instead, it is about NEGATING everything that can get in the way of victory. Winning isn’t about who wants it more. Winning is about who is most prepared. And being prepared is about honestly assessing strength, weaknesses, and developing a plan that negates mistakes and anything else that can get in the way. Or, as he sums it up:

“Having the will to win is not enough. Everyone has that. What matters is having the will to prepare to win.”

Another point Knight makes is to not push people to do what they can’t do, but push them to do what they can. It seems so logical, and yet we ignore this every day:

“My list of hollow platitudes includes the idea that You Can Do Anything You Really Want to Do. The truth is you can’t. Chalk it up to the Divine Being’s grand plan for making the whole world work because of interdependence, but the fact is each of us has more things that we cannot do well than we can. That’s why society has doctors and plumbers and electricians and mechanics and every other Craiglist specialist.”

The point is that whether you are pushing yourself, or running a team, you need to have a clear understanding not only of your strengths, but also an honest assessment of your weaknesses. The inability to do something is not a character flaw (as is not-so-subtly implied when you are told “If you really want to do it, you can”). The Negative Thinker recognizes the strengths and weaknesses in his team and, instead of pushing people to do what they can’t do, pushes them to do what they can to best take advantage of their talents.

There is a lot of great information in this book of particular value to anyone in a leadership position, whether that is a sports coach or a business owner. In particular, when he discusses setting maximum, but realistic, expectations for those who answer to you. People will, in general, work to whatever level you will tolerate. Don’t tolerate less than maximum results. But at the same time, make sure those expectations are based on the real abilities of the person and not an arbitrary, unreachable goal. He offers great examples from his own coaching experiences on how to work toward this.

I have two minor gripes with the book. First, at times Knight gets a little too conversational. He’ll be on a discussion point, and then switch over to an odd little anecdote that bears little resemblance to the point he was making. Second, there are a lot of unnecessary filler quotes thrown at the end of each chapter which are just random adages and clichés. In fact, half of Chapter 11 is nothing but clichés and adages. It felt like they were trying to fluff up the word count. (My copy appears to be double spaced, but this may be because it is an advanced review copy and the final version may have more normal spacing between the sentences)

Overall, The Power of Negative Thinking is a fantastic look into the thought processes and work ethic of a man who knows that it takes more that Happy Fluffy Thoughts to win.

Disclosure: I received a comp copy of this book from the publisher.

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