Recently, I had the opportunity to look over the shoulders of two painters who were giving demonstrations on the same day. The first was almost deliriously positive and bubbly about his work, his wonderful life as an artist and his prior successes. Enthusiastic throughout, he shouted epiphanies and dispensed “empowerment” like rose petals at a wedding.
The second demonstrator spoke less and, when he did, it was mostly about problems he was having with the work — and other more worrisome ones that lay ahead. A couple of times he got himself into trouble — but he scratched his brain and was able to recover. Guess what — the gloomy malcontent did the better painting. We all applauded when he held it up. There were whistles. He didn’t even smile.
This understanding has now been backed up in a new book by former Indiana and Texas Tech college basketball coach Bob Knight, aided by Bob Hammel: The Power of Negative Thinking: An Unconventional Approach to Achieving Positive Results.
“Superiority and success doesn’t favor good effort or self-esteem,” says Knight, “and it definitely doesn’t hand out trophies for participation. The mentally precise and physically fit win, while the mediocre and obtuse take solace in hopeful cliches.”
Bob and Bob have come to the conclusion that if you’re perennially upbeat you’re just setting yourself up for defeat. The positive thinker, they think, has a chronic “no danger ahead” disorder. He’s so busy believing in himself that he’s blindsided by oncoming problems and his own shortcomings.
Success, it seems, favours rigorous self-criticism. Here are some other interesting items I gleaned from the book:
Never gloat. Don’t talk too much. Don’t seek praise. Failure is endemic. Success is being hard to please. Be intolerant of failure. The easiest person to fool is yourself. Know your weaknesses. Be tough. Never let scanty positives override glaring negatives. Don’t be a good loser. Don’t satisfy yourself by just knowing you can do it. Do it. And by the way, keep God out of your equations:
“So when I hear a guy after a game — winning home run say or gesture that God was on his side,” says Bob Knight, “I think to myself, ‘He’s saying God screwed the pitcher.'”
PS: Positive wish: “The sun will come out tomorrow.” Negative reality: “Yeah, and it will flash brand-new daylight on the same old mess unless something is done to clean it up.” (Bob Knight)
Esoterica: All my life I’ve noted artists who talk a good job and do a poor one. Perhaps it’s our ego (particularly, but not always, in men) that keeps us on the muddy path to mediocrity. You know the type. They ask for help but what they really want is praise. These folks are stuck with what Bob Knight calls “the optimism bias.” By thinking you are cleverer and more talented than your buddies, many a career has been blotted. My personal bias is that Bobs know better than everyone else. Bob Knight and Bob Hammel have a point. Be negative.
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I was talking with a fifteen-year-old high school winner of a local contest who wanted to paint in water color professionally. I told her if this were the case she should concentrate on her drawing abilities. She said “Oh, I’ve already learned how to draw!” Humility! We don’t see much of that lately. It goes hand in hand with being politically correct.
Some of the best artists I’ve had the pleasure to come into contact with were humble. They knew the power of being wrong. Art is a discovery. If you think you’ve learned it all, you’re in for mucho trouble and disappointment. While artists need to have belief in themselves, it is better to approach every new work as if it’s the first work you’ve done and worry about how to get it done.
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Negative thinking — a good thing
by Joanne Sibley, Cayman Islands
That is so true and the last paragraph so funny. It makes me feel so good that I can now carry on with my negative thoughts and feel comfortable with them despite the criticism I get for always being just so negative about my work.
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Mental roller coaster
by Loretta West, Spokane,WA, USA
What I find is that too much negative self-talk can be the undoing of potential for good art making in some people. Most of my job as an instructor is to give constructive but gentle criticism, and also to be an encouraging coach when the student is stuck and beats themselves about with mental sticks (i.e. this really sucks, I should just quit and I’m not an artist!). However, I think we all do this in every piece of art we make to some degree — a mental pattern which I’ve learned to expect and make friends with, over the years. Seems we are on some sort of mental roller coaster — starting out smooth, taking a dive and then slowly climbing back up. The difference in my mind between success and failure is if artists can talk themselves back to center — as in, “Well, it’s not so bad, I can see the problem and can fix it” or “I’ve learned a lot and will do it differently in the next piece.” It really is all mental in the end, and it’s ALL practice. It seems part of the struggle is to attain the pinnacle within.
Balance is the answer
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Bobby Knight, the guru of gloom, anger and irritability gives his pointers on excellence. I’d like to see his demo, where he starts cussing and throws his easel! As with many issues in life, the answer is balance. Don’t be too negative and don’t be head-in-the-sand positive either. Be ‘realistic’ and see your work as it is. Note the good’s, and the bad’s, and work on improving the areas you feel you are weaker in, while building on your strengths. As far as teaching and demonstrating, these are ‘selling’ activities. You are selling your ideas and showing them in action. You are a salesman. How many negative sales people achieve great fame! Yeah. Zero. Humility is good. Every artist is an art student… for life. Know and believe it. Manage your ego. Strive, but cut yourself a break. Life is hard. Art is hard. Enjoy the challenge and the journey.
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Negative search = positive reward
by Toni Perrin, Carefree, AZ, USA
My ongoing critical appraisal of my work has shown me areas in which to improve. I’ll study and recheck an image many times to make sure that it says what I meant, with empathy and economy. I expect my works to be successful only after deciding what decisions needed to be improved. My “negative search” has reaped positive rewards.
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The next learning curve
by Gins Doolittle, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Any solution will support new negative situations for your further exploration. Why not try several solutions? — the conservative and the wild, conventional or absurd! Find your mind getting interested in a series of solutions to a problematic theme — experiments tease interests of others, too, who might add their two cents worth. Prepare yourself for many solutions and settle with one correction; give time to swallow the aftermath of what happens with each experiment. Take time to learn, and more will be earned. The improvements happen when the power of negative analysis is undertaken with introspection. Study like a statesman, objectively judging, prior to yours or others’ decision on the best outcome. Engage joyfully in the power of negative thinking — negative analysis has its positive upside. So get out your critical eye, keep keen on spotting the negatives as a key to growth! Your learning will improve and so will results from your work. Keep your eyes prowling around for the next learning curve.
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God did it
by Kathy Fediw, The Woodlands, TX, USA
I agreed with you and Bob Knight until I got to this: “And by the way, keep God out of your equations.” Respectfully, I strongly disagree. I am quite sure that God is responsible for every “success” I’ve ever had and every good thing that has ever happened to me. I know for certain that there have been many times when I’ve been able to accomplish far more than my skills, talents or intelligence would allow me to do, both in my artwork and in other aspects of my life.
Those happy accidents? God did that. That final little touch that makes a painting sing? God is the one who pointed it out. That compulsion to paint a certain person or landscape, the one that won’t leave you alone until it’s done? God, again.
And, by the way, saying that God is responsible for your success does not mean he screwed the other guy, just that this time he blessed you so you could bless others.
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The downside to negativity
by Nicky Muizelaar, High Wycome, Buckinghamshire, UK
Unfortunately there is a rather large downside to negative thinking without balance. In my case it was an unhealthy dose of depression. I had become so convinced that it was safer to be highly critical and expect the worse that it paralyzed me with fear and resulted in a complete loss of hope.
From what I have learnt through this tough episode of my life is that it isn’t any more realistic, safer, call it what you like, to be negative vs. positive. Additionally, other people take you for your word. If you are confident and positive, it attracts positive and happy exchange whereas negativity is rather unappealing and ‘needy’ — it drains everyone’s energy instead of boosting it.
From your example of the two artists I think the ‘fly in the ointment’ for the enthusiastic demonstrator was arrogance and superficiality. Negativity can produce good effort but will never develop healthy self-esteem, a quality so lacking in today’s societies as attested to in crime and wars.
So I would have to argue for a more balanced approach — work with confidence tempered with humbleness, think positively (if you are pleased with a work say so, if not pleased say why but don’t make it about yourself as a person), accept failure for what it teaches us (this doesn’t mean you have to like it, but beating yourself up about it isn’t conducive to growth and better work), be genuinely enthusiastic not superficially gushing.
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Positive outlook preferred
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
I strongly disagree with your latest letter on the “art of being negative.” Here’s why I prefer being positive:
1. I love having a clear, open, spacious, peaceful mind, in which I can focus on present moment awareness. It feels great.
2. Positive mind gives me more energy, and I can get more things done.
3. Positive mind gives me good health. I sleep better, and have fewer illnesses and ailments.
4. I love being “in the Zone” when I paint, and a positive mind gives me that.
5. When I’m in a positive, happy frame of mind I get along great with everyone.
6. When I’m in a positive, happy frame of mind it’s easy to spot opportunities I would have missed had I been feeling negative.
7. I’ve tried it both ways. Compared with positivity, negativity just doesn’t stack up. I’ve been a curmudgeon, and I’ve been a Pollyanna, and being a Pollyanna is better.
Does this mean I still cannot be critical of my work? Does it mean I cannot seek constant improvement? Of course not! That’s just plain absurd. I can be happy and optimistic, and still be realistic about the strengths and weaknesses in my artwork. I can think positively, and still discriminate as to what needs to be done to improve my sales.
If Mr. Knight and Mr. Hammel want to throw their positive, good feeling baby out with the bathwater, that’s their red wagon. As for me, I’m keeping that smiling little cherub! Mixed metaphors aside, I love living in the best of both worlds.
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by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
I figured out that it was inappropriate for me to try to respond to the questions on the most recent clickback like I was trying to do. When I first tried to respond on the instant reply and it did not appear, at first, I thought that it was not working, but later figured out that I overstepped a boundary. My apologies.
Later, I did also figure out that I could click on Valerie’s name and send her the information she requested on framing. I did do that and we had a nice exchange.
What your site has inspired me to do is learn more about how websites work and set up one of my own. An artist friend has offered to teach me more and I hope to use it for a good purpose to inspire others. I do not intend to have it be interactive as yours is with comments, but to connect art to recovery and lifelong learning. A few people may find their way to it. Last year when Minnesota Artists Association got a new webmaster, it took me awhile to even agree to have my email address in the member’s gallery. It has worked out fine.
Enjoy the past comments below for The art of negative thinking…
Moonlight Pinnacle, Harrys Harbour
palette knife oil painting
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes an email from Susan Donnellan of Montvale, NJ, USA, who wrote, “At long last to know I am not unique in harboring thoughts of self-criticism. What a joyous feeling to wake up each morning with an urgent need to meet the daily challenge to finally achieve self-recognition. I ask, ‘Will this be the day when it will happen?’ ”
And also Valerie Norberry Vanorden of Kalamazoo, MI, USA, who wrote, “There is a proverb (I know you said to leave God out of it) by King Solomon (not God) that says, ‘Let the words of another praise you and not your own.’ ” (English proverb)
And also Julie Eliason of Royal Oak, MI, USA, who wrote, “I am a realist. Reality is sometimes positive and sometimes negative or both.”