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My Anti-Affirmation Manifesto

12/21/10

I hate Stuart Smalley.

Or rather, I love Stuart for his mockery of people I think are kinda silly. Stuart was a motivational speaker character on Saturday Night Live famous for his catchphrase “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me.” He stood in for “fake it til you make it” gurus like Tony Robbins, who preached that if you can just tell yourself that you’re good enough or smart enough, then maybe you can act with confidence rather than whimper in a corner unproductively. Some of the best moments of the sketch paired Stuart with gods amongst men like Michael Jordan, the joke being that it’s absurd that Michael would need to fake confidence: Michael’s awesome!

In one sense, I applaud the Stuarts and Robbinses of the world. Confidence is a vital human need. The problem is that the method is fundamentally dishonest. What if you think you aren’t good enough? What if people don’t like you? Robbins’ advice equates to pushing that thought down and ignoring whatever evidence you might have of a real obstacle, ie repressing the thought. The obstacle remains, though now ignored. If you have ever come across an overly aggressive salesman who just doesn’t seem to listen, just keep in mind that the sales world is littered with advocates for fake it til you make it.

Bare with me for a second, because I’m about to get even more sappy than usual.

Instead of blind affirmations, I think that what you need in order to be confident is strategy–knowing how you will deal the obstacles to your goal if they come up. In a sense, while the “fake it til you make its” advocate ignoring reality, I think you need to plunge into it. To that end, I think that gaining confidence is all about asking honest questions and demanding honest answers. Instead of telling yourself that you’re good enough, the question is what are the skills you know you have that you can rely on here, and what are your strategies to avoid or lessen the impact of any weaknesses? Instead of saying that you’re smart enough, the question is what do you know, and what important material do you not know that you might be able to read up on quickly in the next five minutes? And how do you build skill in the future so that there really isn’t a question of whether or not you’re good enough? And instead of telling yourself that people like you–well, screw ’em anyway.

That’s a joke, and how you deal with whether or not people like you is a whole ‘nother topic, but I think the pattern is clear. You can’t pretend obstacles away. But if you look at them directly, then you can do something even better with your obstacles. You can deal with them.

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6 comments

  1. I think the proper reaction when encountering a situation where one’s performance is falling short of one’s standards is:

    1. Take it seriously. Accept that it is unacceptable.

    2. Examine the standard: is it fair? Is it achievable? Maybe you should reject it outright?

    3. If you’ve decided to keep the standard, you MUST act to improve your performance in whatever way open to you, or your self esteem will suffer.

    This post clearly focuses on #3. But maybe what these gurus are still focused on #2.

    I think many people DO try to live up to irrational, perfectionistic standrad when gosh darn it – they are good ENOUGH.


    • Eran,

      I agree with you, and making sure your standards are fair to you is an important topic that I hope to write more about.

      One note about your #3: the way you have it written would scare the hell out of me if I followed it to the extent it literally says. What I’d add is to keep in context where that performance falls in your current priorities and commit to improving the performance accordingly.

      For example, let’s say you realize you just gave an unacceptably boring and confusing presentation, but that it’s more important that you focus on properly managing a few pressing projects than ensuring that your next presentation is a smashing success. I think then you would feel great about yourself if you committed to a little more preparation for the next presentation, taking a class at some point when work dies down, and giving yourself a standing order in the meantime to watch others’ presentations for tips. Theoretically, you could go off into a cabin somewhere for weeks and just tackle your presentation skills, but that might not be the right thing in full context.

      But the requirements of self esteem is an interesting topic, worth returning to another day. Sent from my iPhone


      • Yep, I agree. I intended the “standard” to encompass the full context of your life, but I do think it’s a bit of my own perfectionism showing through.

        The hardest thing for me to realize was that not everything that could be better should be better.


  2. I think that you need to consider the energy that’s naturally drawn towards people with a positive attitude. People like to be around nice, happy, fun people rather than miserable, self loathing duds. I happen to be a believer in the power of putting out positive energy to get positive energy back because ultimately what it does is empower you to realize that when something or someone negative comes at you and attacks you or what you’re doing, it most likely has nothing to do with you and that gives you the tools to get around the object in your way. I’m not saying that I don’t agree with your methods for achieving success – whether you’re good enough or smart enough or if people like you, but I can say that great things are never achieved without a strong belief in yourself and what you’re putting out to the world. And quite frankly, if this Stuart Smalley method works for people and they are living happy, successful, fulfilled lives, then how can you knock it? To each his own I suppose. But don’t worry, I still think you’re good enough, certainly smart enough and we’ve been friends for most of our lives, so I’m pretty sure I like you too!


    • Thanks, Sara! I like you, too!

      And I’d absolutely agree that great things can’t happen without a strong belief in yourself. The problem I’ve seen with the Smalley approach is that it’s a short cut to confidence that doesn’t (and can’t) entirely work. All those doubts a Smalleyite has pushed down are still alive, undercutting one’s confidence and standing ready to reemerge at the first sign of failure (“Oh, I guess I wasn’t good enough or smart enough after all.”) Where the Smalley approach says to repress your doubts; the more successful approach is to take the doubts on, question whether they’re valid, and strategize to get better at what you can and minimize the impact of what you can’t. It’s at this point that real confidence follows, with all of the great stuff that comes with it.

      Sent from my iPhone


  3. Contrary to your interpretation, Tony Robbins and Michael Jordan are great friends who share paid business relationship where Tony Coached Michael and Michael was eternally grateful.

    Your ideas aren’t too wrong. Tony often speaks against “positive thinking” of the sort you’re referring to in his well researched discourses and he even professionally acknowledges the comedic poke SNL made towards him with the Stuart Smalley character. But you shouldn’t take SNL too seriously with those quips because SNL knows they were joking about Tony.

    Tony is very well respected by professionals and laymen alike for his ability to positively impact the lives of others based on the years of research he’s done on the topics of personal motivation and life planning. Yes, planning. His theories have little to do with imagining yourself being better than you are and more to do with imagining what it would take to BECOME the person you want and then ACTING on the details that would force the dream into a reality.

    His researchers are invaluable and relevant to the majority of western society and then some. Your claims about him suiting the Smalley character are false. Those were tounge in cheek jokes, not accurate details at all.

    Just wanted to clarify. 🙂 Take care.



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