‘Yes we can!’ Why endless positivity is dangerous.

President Obama, soon to be leaving, won his place in the White House with a famous strap line:

‘Yes we can!’

It worked well for him. It caught the moment, the zeitgeist, like a surfer riding a wave.

And it’s now become the dogma of our age:

‘Yes we can!’

Companies, health trusts and schools must all out-aspire their rivals with hyper-inflated strap lines of their own.

You’ll know the sort of thing:

‘Delivering excellence daily.’

‘We go above above and beyond!’

I was once pitching to a London company accessed by stairs. Above the stairs it said:

‘Walk no further unless your goal is the exceptional.’

I felt like leaving. I was just there to do my best…

For the best of reasons – aspiration can be a good energy – we’ve become trapped in a cycle of manic (and rather terrified) positivity that over-promises and creates false expectations.

It also destroys people.

Ask your staff to deliver excellence daily and they’ll crack.

When everything must be excellent, mere ‘good’ becomes a disappointment, a failure…a big, big let down.

The Korean-German philosopher Byung Chul Han is concerned at the current mood.

In his book ‘The burnout society’ he claims endless positivity leads to hyper-activity… and then burnout.

No one can say ‘No’…to their boss or their phone or to the expectations.

It’s not a healthy way to live.

The truth is, excellence is wonderful – but occasional.

If we are to stay well, excellence will include normal, will allow ‘good’ and will allow rest.

We’re allowed to put everything down, potter around and enjoy just being human.

We’re allowed to be tired, allowed to collapse.

‘Yes we can!’ is only sometimes true.

Sometimes we can’t, sometimes we must say ‘no’.

Our excellence lies in the balance.