Toxic positivity

Unbridled positivity has become a business religion

Hope everyone had a good long weekend before a short week. Now that we’re fully into the summer months, I want to try a few different types of pieces. This one is on an issue that’s long bedeviled me: the line between optimism and pessimism, and how toxic positivity can stand in the way of pragmatism. If you’re here and not yet signed up, please do so to receive The Rebooting twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday.

Over the weekend, I ran by a bunch of food trucks setting up for a Fourth of July celebration off the beach. One caught my eye with a truly on-brand message for Miami: “Surround yourself with tacos, not negativity.” Miami is rife with those kinds of public exhortations of positivity. An outdoor gym across the street – another oddity of Miami is people doing pullups next to the bus stop, no judgments  – gives me tough love positivity, “Only you can make it happen, so make it happen.” This kind of messaging is easier when there’s a lot of sun and the beach is beckoning. Miami is filled with people who wear “Good vibes only” shirts.

It’s also a reason I think a lot of New Yorkers roll their eyes at Miami. It’s all so… fake. Always happy? In this economy? Unbridled positivity has become something of a business religion, outlasting (maybe) the hustle culture. Like hustle, it takes something that most would agree is a good thing (working hard) and takes it to an extreme (performative obsessiveness). It goes hand in hand with the rise of therapy speak in business. Mitt Romney divided Americans between “makers and takers,” the positivity gospel holds that there are the sunny optimists and the surly cynics. As with most narratives, the narrator casts themself as the protagonist; the optimists inherit the earth, one TedX at a time. Much of LinkedIn is powered by this psycho babble that often reads as a reheating of Norman Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking from the 1950s. (Trump was a fan.)

Progress is not made by playing pretend. Solving problems is hard, but you have almost no shot if you deny they exist or actively encourage people to ignore them in the name of positivity. And doing anything meaningful is hard and will inevitably involve setbacks and problems. Denying that is delusional, not optimistic, and it makes you look like an asshole when the tough times inevitably do come. There are people who counsel new runners to “block out the pain” when this is the wrong advice. Discomfort is a signal to monitor, better to welcome it as part of the journey.

I’m currently reading Tombstone, an account of the Great Famine in China that lasted from 1958 to 1962 and killed a mind-boggling 36 million people. For whatever reason, I’m drawn to these disaster stories, whether it’s Shackleton’s ill-fated voyage, the Chernobyl meltdown, the bungled response to Covid, or the collapse of popular support of liberalism and globalism. The thread that ties these disasters together is that leaders at the top didn’t want to hear bad news. The organizational rot of these systems was that people were punished for pointing out problems. Well, that’s one way, as a leader, to cut down on problems, at least that you hear about.

During the Great Famine, Mao controlled a system that set arbitrary and ever growing quotas, prized central control over autonomy and punished anyone who pointed out mass starvation that resulted for being a “rightist deviant.” If you’re some official who has seen someone endure a “struggle session” for speaking up, you’re going to keep quiet. To Mao, any “problems” (mass starvation) were a result of people having a capitalist mindset. So to be a true believer meant you had to be a true believer in outlandish goals of the “rash advance” – Mao later smartly rebranded this the Great Leap Forward, far catchier – and to question how realistic they were was to be a saboteur guilty of “thought failure.” I’ll take a hard pass on this approach. Meanwhile, at a similar time, Lee Kuan-Yew was building Singapore by dispensing ideology for pragmatism.

Interestingly, the economist Amartya Sen could  no famines have happened in independent and democratic countries with a free press. That’s because in independent democracies, chaotic and noisy by design, dissenters speak up and journalists don’t believe whatever powerful people claim. That’s not the case in authoritarian systems. Lies are a feature, not a bug.

Most companies aren’t run like Mao’s China, but the obsession with control and ideological conformity still exists, not to mention unrealistic quotas that end up being mindlessly pursued, even if hitting them wasn’t good in the long run or sustainable. Pageview quotas never made sense to me for this reason; the same for subscription “goals” (ties to compensation). I’ve often mentioned how we live in a time of loud extremes. There can often be camps of toxic positivists and nihilistic negativists. That obscures the broad middle where pragmatism lies. There are no answers, just hypotheses to test.

Designing and running a company now is difficult. Companies end up trying to play both extremes. They tie themselves in knots by pandering to the latest societal issue while ignoring many of the tangible steps they can and should take to build more equitable organizations. But point that out, you can always fall back on carping about critics. Maybe trot out the “man in the arena” quote to dismiss the Statlers and Waldorfs in the balcony.

The backlash to web3 has more fervor and violence in part because of the toxic positivity of the entire “movement.” The “to the moon” exhortations to “frens” struck many critical thinkers as the same kind of fast-talking schtick employed by flim-flam men since the start of scams. Irrational exuberance is not new, and it’s often a guise for those trying to pull a fast one. A common thread of the stories of the collapse of WeWork, Theranos and WireCard is leadership who branded themselves as visionary optimists in order to squelch dissent and awkward questions about, you know, realities.

This strain of thinking will be put to a test during an economic downturn. Covid didn’t turn out to be the economic disaster it originally seemed. The early predictions of a V-shaped recovery ended up being accurate, at least for the stock market and many parts of the economy. The flood of money, both through monetary policy and stimulus, created big bubbles and mini-bubbles. The top economists assured us that the economy would be fine and any inflation was transitory. Only pessimists wanted to talk their way into an inflationary spiral.

Many publishers saw their businesses improve quite a bit. Those stretch goals were always right after all. It was just down to “adventurist errors” in execution. But what fundamentally changed? It’s like how when I run, I credit my own fitness for being faster with the wind at my back, but when turning to come back, it’s all the wind’s fault for my pace slowing. The boom and bust of capitalism mean that we’ll swing from shortages to surpluses, both in goods and in workers. The cuts taking place at tech firms will filter their way down to the media business. Marketing and advertising budgets will get cut. A flight to performance will happen and flush out the thin-value creators that end up inevitably flourishing during times of froth. Good time for pragmatists.

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History might not repeat itself, but hype cycles sure do. The metaverse marketing craze kicked off by Meta inevitably led to companies scrambling to find a “metaverse strategy.” Naturally they have been pushed along in this exploration by agencies, service providers and platforms all too eager to dip into those “experimental” budgets that have fuzzy KPIs. The engagement numbers for Decentraland are jarring.

Operating in good times is one thing, finding a way in times of austerity is quite another. The streaming gold rush has ended. Lucas Shaw has a good inside view of the end of the short-lived “drunken sailor” era of easy money for streaming shows.

First they came for the homepage, now they’re coming for the entire webpage. Troy Young, who has a lot of experience with webpages, wonders whether the webpage is still relevant and in what role. With most things, it depends. Just as print magazines play a different (and less important) role for brands, so too will the webpage for many of these companies. Publishers like Dotdash Meredith and Red Ventures will continue to organize many of their brands around webpages discoverable via Google and other channels. But more publishing brands will begin without the webpage as the central organizing principle.

There’s something to be said for media brands that simply cease to exist. The alternative for many past-their-prime brands that don’t have an obvious place in modern times is to have their brand equity milked in various ways by groups with different motivations. Newsweek is perhaps the quintessential example of a brand who met this fast. Its past decade has been a true adventure, with the latest twist being its former owner, IBT Media, accusing its new owner of reneging on terms of the 2018 deal. There’s accusations of money laundering and even a “cleric”

The essence of pendulums is they always swing. And the capital-labor pendulum has swung during Covid firmly on the side of labor for the first time in a while. But certain areas were clearly overstaffed. Tech companies are notoriously overstaffed, something I believe is used to distract from how much their monopoly power in markets powers their businesses. With stock prices in the toilet, tech companies are turning from coddling to playing the tough guy, ordering reticent workers to the office and even Zuckerberg admirably telling people the goal is to manage out low performers. Points for transparency. Trends in Silicon Valley usually filter through the rest of the economy, so expect a revenge of the Boss Class as the Great Resignation gave way to the Great Reassessment and now the Great Realignment.

Thanks so much for reading. Send me a note with feedback: Please share The Rebooting with anyone you believe would find it valuable. Thanks to Kirsten Stallard, who shared The Rebooting on LinkedIn: “I wouldn't say that this topic is typically what I'm drawn to reading about, but I'm finding myself going deep into the archive of old posts and taking screenshots of various things that are resonating!” Thanks, Kirsen.