The world is awash in self-help books on the power of positive thinking. If we fill our minds with positive thoughts and treat everyone kindly, then good things will happen to us. So, smile the bad stuff away because tomorrow will be a brand new day.
If only it were true.
Back in 1979, an engineering school in Terre Haute, Indiana hired me fresh out of college as the Assistant Computing Center Director. A fancy title for the number two person in a two person IT shop. Starting salary: $14,400 per year. Even in 1979 dollars, that was barely above the poverty line.
Naturally, I wanted more money. Because choosing every month between paying bills and buying groceries was less than ideal. One day, we stumbled onto an opportunity to become Amway distributors. I went to a few meetings and saw double-diamond distributors with nice cars, nice houses, and nice everything, and I decided I wanted some of that. And, so, I jumped in head-first and drug my then-new wife, Tina, along for the ride.
We went to distributor meeting after distributor meeting after distributor meeting and listened to successful people preach about the power of positive thinking. Keep thinking positive thoughts and success will follow. After all, that’s what we did. And you can do it too, if you just believe strongly enough. And be sure to buy our books and tapes on your way out.
A group of those successful and positive people always went out to Denny’s after the meetings. Tina and I tagged along. We had no money to buy restaurant food, and, so I always asked our Amway friends to order extra blue cheese dressing with their salads so I could dip the free crackers. Tina had more dignity. But I was hungry.
One time, Tina and I decided to visit friends in Peru, Indiana, about 140 miles away from our trailer in Seelyville, Indiana. We set out one Friday after work. I was tired by the time we hit Kokomo, but determined to press on, find our friends, and sponsor them into our new Amway business that was only a few yeses from success. And that was when I almost missed a turn, swerved left from the right lane, and a car smashed into my driver’s side door.
Wrecking the car on the way to Peru, Indiana to sponsor our friends into our soon-to-explode business, was not part of the plan. Worse, I couldn’t open the stupid door. And then after I smashed it open, it would not shut. And the dash light would not turn off.
The people who smashed into our car offered some extra rope and I used it to tie the door shut. I don’t remember how I got the dash light to go out – maybe I took out the bulb – and then we finished the drive to Peru. We spent the weekend with our friends. They had no interest in signing up with us, Tina didn’t want to talk about it anyway. I spent most of the weekend fixing the car for the trip home.
We drove home Sunday, tired and dejected. But only for a while because positive thoughts will always carry the day. If you believe, you will achieve.
Somebody called on me to tell our positive Amway story at the next meeting. And so I put a positive spin on that Peru trip. It was a signal that good things were coming, I said, because I finally forced the car door open, and even found a way to both open and close it over the weekend. And the dash light – no big deal. Who needs an extra light in the car anyway?
As I think back on that time, I’ll bet everyone in the room thought I was spewing satire. But I wasn’t. I was sure positive things would happen to us, if only I believed strongly enough. It never was that nice of a car anyway.
We moved to the Chicago area a couple years later, and I sold that car for $175 to a family that spoke no English. Tina was mad at me for taking their money. A few months after that, the great state of Illinois sent me a bill for a parking ticket. Apparently, this family had abandoned the car at O’hare Airport and never switched the title. They probably had trouble figuring out how to use the manual choke I mounted to work around a carburetor problem. I had to mount it backwards because that was the only way it would fit.
Bad things happen in this world, and there are days when I’m as mad and/or depressed and/or discouraged as I can be. And pretending otherwise is a lie. Better to face the bad stuff head-on and deal with it than to believe it will go away if I pretend it’s not there.
That does not grant permission to wallow in self pity, or lash out, or hurt anyone. Nor does it grant permission to ignore my obligations just because some part of my life isn’t going the way I want.
All it means is, accept the bad stuff and learn to either live with it or overcome it. Like most things in life, it’s balance. Positive thinking has its place. So does accepting reality. Maybe wisdom is knowing when to do which.
My Amway career never amounted to anything. But it taught me not to fear rejection. And that’s valuable for any writer because rejection and writing are like dirt and grass. They’re always together. And so, at the risk of more rejection, try my books.
Learn balance when you’re young and maybe avoid a whole bunch of pain in your later years. At age 64, I’ve now earned the right to say stuff like this. Besides, with the benefit of a few years of hindsight, sometimes those early challenges make good stories.