Best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich spoke in Iowa City last week as part of the University Lecture Committee’s series of speakers here at the University of Iowa. Ms. Ehrenreich’s most recent book is Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, but she is perhaps best known for authoring Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. I had the pleasure of interviewing her in my capacity as general manager of KRUI-FM, the college radio station.
While many subjects were covered throughout the course of the interview, one of the questions that I asked centered on a topic from Bright-Sided. I asked that Ms. Ehrenreich elaborate on a point made in the initial pages of the book on the “vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” She cited the founding fathers of the United States of America as demonstrating this courage in the face of extreme danger to their respective livelihoods (and lives).
I do not believe it to be too large a stretch in applying this thinking within an explicitly business-oriented context. Challenging decisions require both courage and rational thought to be executed properly, and the notion that thinking positively will somehow carry the day is placing faith in very shaky ground. Bright-Sided makes for a particularly compelling read for salespeople, especially a chapter titled “Motivating Business and the Business of Motivation.” Given the various pressures in the diverse field of sales, it can be easy to fall prey to delusional tropes, get-rich-quick pitches, and the like. One lesson is that it is best to be wary of those who would have one believe that profits are only a few positive thoughts away. Delivering value to customers and the firm requires much more than that.
During her lecture at the Englert Theatre on Monday the 24th of September, Ms. Ehrenreich spoke in some depth to the same ideas she wrote so eloquently about in Nickel and Dimed over a decade ago, especially on the subject of the working poor. The problem of poverty is still a very real one in the U.S., and is one that will require much in the way of leadership both in words and deeds in order to realize progress.
If you are unfamiliar with the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, I highly recommend that you find copies of Nickel and Dimed and Bright-Sided and give them a go. There are plenty of implicit lessons for present and future business leaders to take away from these books.