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Speed Review: The Power of Negative Thinking

An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results

by Bob Knight & Bob Hammel

Speed Review: The Power of Negative Thinking
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The Silver Lining In Bob Knight's Dark Cloud

Bob Knight, the irrepressible, legendary basketball coach famous for his volatile personality, is no fan of Norman Vincent Peale, author of the perennial bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking. For Knight, positive thinking — or Pollyanna thinking, as he calls it — is nothing more than feel-good platitudes that are as effective as a mother telling a 3-year-old, "Let me kiss it and make it well." As Knight explains with his characteristic blunt humor, "The truth is that unless Mom had a mouthful of iodine, she probably wasn’t going to help."

According to Knight, the third-winningest coach in NCAA Division I basketball history, it wasn’t the power of positive thinking that made him so successful; it was the power of negative thinking. Before every game, Knight focused on what could go wrong — for example, what vulnerabilities his team had to overcome and what strengths the other team would employ. What could also go wrong is that the team would make mistakes. "Victory favors the team making the fewest mistakes," is, in Knight’s view, the most important principle for winning games.

If you do lose a game — or that promotion or market leadership in your category or whatever losing means to you — then you must figure out why you lost, he writes. And if you win the game, don’t gloat or stay fixated on the win. A big win is often followed by a disappointing loss because players haven’t moved on from the win. And that loss will negate the win, in sports or in any field, as Knight explains: "That victory smile followed by a loser’s stumble can happen in business, too." For Knight, the demise of so many high-flying tech companies in the Internet bust was due to the cockiness of young entrepreneurs who believed in the unlimited future of their success.

Visualizing Failure

While many success gurus advocate visualizing success — imagining everything going well — Knight ascribes the success of his teams to his (and their) ability to visualize failure and then prepare accordingly. He calls this "negative imaging" or the "if-then" principle. For example, if the other team is strong in this facet of the game, then we have to respond in this way. Knight believes that Harry Truman’s ability to overcome almost insurmountable odds — a hugely favored opponent in New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, not to mention being abandoned by both the right and left wings of his own party — to win the 1948 election can be traced to an if-then attitude. Truman didn’t visualize success, he visualized failure — and then set about making sure that vision of failure never occurred. Truman told himself, "He is right now in a better position to win than I am." He then put the if-then attitude to work. If the opponent is in a better position, then, Truman decided, "I have to work a lot harder than he does, spend a lot more time and be more effective with the public." His plain-speaking language, usually delivered from the back of a train, about the do-nothing Congress galvanized the growing crowds who urged him on with the slogan, "Give ’em Hell, Harry!"

In contrast, Dewey, suffered from one of the ailments that, according to Knight, is common with the positive thinkers: overconfidence.

"Confidence," writes Knight, "is not one of my favorite words. Too many times, confidence is a false feeling that you have before you really understand the situation."

Beyond Basketball

While many of the examples are drawn from college basketball, The Power of Negative Thinking also includes a variety of nonsports examples. Knight, who started his college head-coaching career at West Point, also uses military examples (such as the foolish invasions of Russia by both Napoleon and Hitler), historical examples and even examples from the Bible (as Knight points out, seven of the 10 commandments start with "Thou shalt NOT..."). The Power of Negative Thinking is as entertaining and provocative as its author — but it’s the author’s nearly unprecedented success in sports that lends credibility to his passionate and comprehensive argument that positive thinking is the path to failure.

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