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Be Positive. Be Neutral. Which Is It?

"Don’t be negative" and "Don’t be judgmental" are opposites.

"You were really great in there!”
“Wow. Don’t be so judgmental!”

If judging is deciding one thing is worse than another thing why do people say “don’t be judgmental,” only when you’re being critical? Shouldn’t they also say it when you praise them?”

Here’s some sound advice, you probably embrace: Don’t focus on what’s going wrong; focus on what’s going right. Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative. Count your blessings, discount your curses. Stay hopeful, don’t despair. If something is bothering you, don’t let it distract you. That way you can dedicate your undistracted attention to making things work. Don’t be negative; be positively judgmental.

Here’s some other sound advice you probably embrace: When you face a choice, don’t be biased. Evaluate options neutrally. Stubborn people put their thumbs on the scales. They ignore, discount or dismiss inconvenient truths and pay undue attention to other factors. Don’t be prejudiced like that. Don’t be positively judgmental; be neutral.

Two sound bits of advice: be positive; be neutral. This double standard shows up everywhere.

In partnership focus on what you like about each other, not what you dislike, but hey, why is that couple still together? They make each other miserable. Why are they so biased toward staying together?

In society we should make the best of things, emphasizing the good and ignoring the worst in every person and idea. And we should judge people and ideas on their merits without favoritism, honestly accounting for the true costs and benefits of every option.

In politics we should stand up for what’s we believe in emphasizing what’s good and not what’s bad about our beliefs. But we should weigh all beliefs neutrally. Partisans stubbornly tout the good and ignore the bad in their favored ideas. That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in.

In religion have faith. Commit with all your heart. Sure you don’t like everything your religion demands of you, but just count your blessings, but do this as a matter of choice and discernment. Set aside your biases, your preconceptions and decide with an open mind what you believe.

There’s nothing wrong with having two standards if you know the contexts in which they each apply. You have a double standard about driving: Adults can, toddlers can’t. So what’s the context for deciding when to be positive or neutral?

When deciding whether to commit to a choice be neutral. Turn off your biases. But once you’ve committed to a choice, stay committed by emphasizing the benefits of your choice and de-emphasizing the costs.

I call this the Spin Doctor’s Hippocratic Oath: When deciding, unspin. Employ your powers of neutral thinking. But once you’ve decided, spin. Employ your powers of positive thinking to motivate yourself and others about the choice you’ve made, and employ your power of negative thinking to discount discredit and demotivate about the options you didn’t choose.

For example, when you're deciding whether to have a child, weigh the pros and cons neutrally. Once you’ve had your child, stop weighing. Count your parental blessings and discount the costs.

Likewise, when deciding whether to marry, weigh the pros and cons neutrally but once you’ve decided to marry, count your marriage’s blessings and ignore the costs.

Having a child is a lifelong commitment. You can never be an ex-parent. When the decision is final, never to be revisited, applying this double standard is pretty straightforward. Think carefully, and if you decide to have your child, never look back. Spin it hard as a good decision so you can focus positively on raising your child. Don’t mutter as you tuck your child into bed, “You know, I still can’t decide whether I want to have you.”

But many decisions are far less straightforward because they’re reversible. When and how should you switch from decided to redeciding, when and how do you turn off the optimism, switching back to neutrality to revisit a choice you’ve made?

Here are five tips for thinking about the real-world practicalities of managing the double standard, on the one hand, highlighting the benefits and discounting the costs of a choice you’ve made, on the other hand weighing the benefits and costs neutrally.

  1. Don’t pretend we should be consistently one or the other: Recognize the challenge. Stop pretending that people should always be neutral and that being biased is a rare pathology. We’re all biased and for good reason, to stay optimistic about the commitments we’ve made.
  2. Honor closed-mindedness: You often hear that healthy people are always open-minded. That’s not quite right. Embrace your closed-mindedness, your biased insistence that what you’ve committed to is good. It's called loyalty. If we went around all day receptive to whatever, we’d dither, never getting anything done.
  3. Cultivate changeable conviction: The trick is shifting gracefully between deciding and decided, between neutral receptivity and positive commitment. My model for that is the flighty teen we ridicule for puppy love, “Tim, he’s a dreamboat, the man of my dreams,” one week and “Tim? Oh, he’s a loser, Jim is the man of my dreams,” the next. Sure, she loses some credibility flipping like that, but now apply the same approach to trying to treat terminal cancer. “Drug A is the best possible treatment. I have very high hopes,” one week and “Drug A was unlikely to work, but I have faith that Drug B will.”
  4. Harbor a dinghy of doubt: When we decide to go with plan A instead of plan B, we don’t get immediate peace of mind for two reasons, first because we can’t always tell right away that A was the better choice. Second, we’ve just strapped ourselves with the costs of A and we’ve just rejected the benefits of B. For example, if you move to LA, not NY, you can’t tell right away that LA is better, there are costs to moving there you experience immediately, and you’ve just said bye-bye to the benefits of moving to NY. To commit to your decision, you’ll want to spin your choice positively. LA is perfect and NY would have been terrible. Still, it’s better to keep the tradeoffs in the back of your mind, safely harbored, so they don’t throw you back into deciding mode but not discarded either. If you understand and appreciate the fundamental tension between, “be positive” and “be neutral,” keeping your doubts alive but in some remote corner comes naturally. You harbor that dinghy of doubt, available to you should it ever come time to reconsider your decision.
  5. Be careful popping open that worm-can of wondering: When your spouse asks “do you love me?” when you’re not feeling it, be careful. It’s one thing to hem and haw about moving to LA or NY. The cities don’t care. When there are other people involved in your decision it gets trickier. If you re-open your decision, you force those involved to do so also. If you say, “I don’t love you as much as I used to. I’m rethinking our marriage,” your spouse isn’t going to just wait devotedly for you to decide. By the time you raise your doubts, you’re in for a rough ride, both of your re-opening the decision, both of you pulling back. This doesn’t just apply to marriages. Any commitment to other people is like that. Don’t walk into your boss’s office and say “I’m wondering if I should look for work elsewhere,” until you’re ready for what follows.
  6. Forgive people their changed convictions: “But you said you loved me!” is a natural response to a spouse deciding to leave. It’s outrageous, actually – someone promising loyalty and then reneging. But is it a moral violation? It was in prior cultures but not so much today. Unconditional commitment is an ideal none of us can make if we’re committed to making good use of our precious short lives. Often, when hurt and angry that someone changed from positive to neutral or the reverse, we treat it as a moral failing. It can be if someone led you on and used you, but it’s not universally wrong. If you want to hold it as a moral standard, you have to live by it too, which as this article suggests, is not as easy as always being positive and always being neutral. Life choices are harder than that.