Becoming negatively capable for positive results
"....several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean NEGATIVE CAPABILITY, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."
—John Keats, the English poet, in a letter to his brothers George and Thomas in 1817
Perhaps Keats used the term Negative Capability to mean a sympathetic openness to uncertainties, an absence of rigidity and the ability to remain satisfied with the lack of clear answers, but one could incorporate it as a strategy for personal success, understanding it as the ability to accept and overcome obstacles in the path to success.
Negative Capability is what distinguishes the extra-ordinary from the ordinary, the abundant from the frugal, the noble from the banal, the intuitive from the sensing, the visionary from the myopic, the purposeful from the aimless.
I have often been asked to identify one key characteristic across the board for all successful people. Even though several qualities contribute towards growth, Negative Capability will certainly top the list. Admittedly, it seems paradoxical to equate success with negative capability when almost all literature on personal leadership and success points towards strengths, positive thinking, right actions and behaviors—in other words, positive capability. Notwithstanding the apparent paradox, I think Negative Capability and success are two sides of the same coin!
If I have the power to identify the obstacles in my path without allowing them to affect who I am, I can consider myself to be Negatively Capable. If I can change my role or behavior without bruising my identity or self-worth, I become eminently capable of accepting and overcoming the inevitable presence of negatives. In fact, negatively capable people have such a high positive expectancy that they do not dismiss the existence of doubts, uncertainties and mysteries. They instead use these negative factors to discover possible creative actions that can improve their plan of action. Negatively capable people are intuitive and imaginative, and convert a rigid plan into an improved growth plan; they revamp a limited goal structure into a more comprehensive one.
When Robert Peary, a naval civil engineer, touched the North Pole after failing for 23 years, he had obviously tried and overcome numerous uncertainties. Had he not been negatively capable, he would have given up much earlier!
If Henry Ford was able to bring to the world an alternate way of transportation against negative environmental factors like a dominant railroad sector, nearly 100-odd competitors in the fray and limited finances, he certainly possessed a high negative capability that overcame all the odds.
When a young girl with a lisp worked on her diction and pronunciation repeatedly to become one of the finest broadcasters in American television, she couldn’t have done so without enormous negative capability! That girl was Barbara Walters.
While Negative Capability works on who you are, Positive Expectancy works on where you want to go and how to reach there; whereas the former works on persistence, the latter focuses on a great outcome. Both these capabilities are two sides of the same coin. In fact I would even go to the extent of saying that Negative Capability equals Positive Expectancy! Like Juno’s swans, one does not exist without the other!
How do we develop Negative Capability? By strengthening our self-esteem and core values—those that make us effective instead of merely efficient, strategic leaders rather than tactical managers, adapt than be defensive, resilient rather than reactive:
- 1. Clarify your direction
- Determine what specific goals you would like to accomplish.
- Visualize the benefits and value you will add on achieving your goals.
- 2. Develop a Plan of Action
- Consider the doubts, uncertainties, mysteries that may exist in your plan by imagining them.
- Identify the possible obstacles.
- Organize your activity and build a sense of expectancy.
- 3. Develop a sincere desire for what you stand for in life
- Create a strong, burning desire by reinforcing who you are and what you stand for
- Take small, baby-steps daily to develop self-worth and build success habits.
- 4. Follow through your plan with supreme confidence
Address every activity without a mental reservation of defeat and
yet with the flexibility of recognizing obstacles to overcome.
Concentrate on your strengths instead of weaknesses; on your powers to solve obstacles rather than your problems.
- 5. Develop a dogged determination?irrespective of what others say or do
- Construct your determination with a disciplined plan, feedback and a tracking system.
- Practice affirmations and behavior modifications repeatedly.
[Mohan Kapur is a Managing Partner of Leadership Management Institute – Atlanta and a senior Executive Coach/Career Management Consultant with Right Management (part of Manpower Company) which services nearly 80% of US Fortune 500. Contact: 678-357-005; firstname.lastname@example.org]
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