Book Review: Rethinking Positive Thinking

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I bought Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation by Gabriele Oettinger because I wanted to learn more about mental contrasting. Mental contrasting is a technique that helps in goal formation and achievement. Dr. Oettinger created the tool. 

I quit reading about a 10th of the way into the book. The book wasn’t doing what I expected and was doing things that made me crazy. 

If you haven’t learned them already from life, there are two important things you can learn from this book. 

Positive thinking unconnected from reality won’t help you achieve much. 

Positive thinking without action won’t help you achieve anything. 

There. Now you don’t have to buy the book. 

If you’re a businessperson searching for ways improve your performance, this book is a waste of time. If you want to learn about Dr. Oettinger’s research and how she developed the mental contrasting tool, you may like this book. It’s not about mental contrasting. It’s only faintly about positive thinking. 

“But wait!” I hear you cry, “What about mental contrasting? I’ve heard that’s an effective tool that I can use to improve goal setting and achievement. “

If you want to learn about mental contrasting check out two other books. One is 9 Things Successful People Do Differently by Dr. Heidi Grant. The other is Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker. Either of those authors do a better job of explaining mental contrasting and how you can use it.

If you want to learn more about the research and decide to buy this book, you may find some things that make you crazy. They sure made me crazy. 

For an academic especially, the language is startingly imprecise. There are times when it seems to just slosh around, substituting one word for another without any plan. For one example, Dr. Oettinger seems to equate positive thinking with dreaming. In any case, she sometimes uses both terms interchangeably in the same paragraph. 

Those terms aren’t equivalents. Positive thinking is active thinking. Dreaming is passive. Sometimes, the author doesn’t use either of those words. She uses “imagining” instead. That may not bother you. It bothered me a lot. 

Dr. Oettinger also brings in all kinds of “support” for her points. Some don’t fit. 

Here’s one example. The author is talking about what she calls a “cult of optimism.” She uses a quote from Samuel Johnson as an example. Johnson said, “The habit of looking on the best side of everything is worth a thousand a year.” 

That doesn’t illustrate a cult of optimism. It’s about what to do in a tough situation. Writers from Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics, through Luther’s Small Catechism, down to the latest trendiest motivational speaker, say that. Optimism is a judgement about how things will turn out. Johnson’s observation is about finding the best in a bad situation.

In A Nutshell

Unless you want to get into the details of Dr. Oettinger’s research, skip this book. It will be a waste of time if you’re looking for practical applications. Even if learning about the research is your goal, sloppy language and a practice of stretching examples to fit her conclusions may still make you crazy. 

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