The Power of Negative Thinking

Thomas Edison, in talking about inventing, is quoted as saying, “the first step is an intuition—and comes with a burst—then difficulties arise.”

To me this is similar to the bursts of inspiration and motivation we sometimes get when writing. The trouble is that the burst subsides and “difficulties arise.”

Edison is famous and became successful because he persisted through the difficulties. He never gave up just because the burst of intuition and motivation was gone. I think one of the ways we can do the same is to expect difficulties. To actively anticipate them, so that they don’t catch us off guard.

I sometimes joke that this can be thought of as “negative thinking.” I’m naturally an optimist, but when I “think negative,” I honestly assess the difficulties, challenges or obstacles that may be in front of me. I attempt to understand any potential risks or pitfalls in my path. Wherever I’m headed, whatever my goals might be, I can’t afford to be unreservedly positive.

There are several clear advantages to “negative thinking,” including:

♦ When you’re focused on “thinking positive,” you may not be adequately prepared for the challenges of your journey, and therefore fail to meet them successfully.

♦ Thinking through the negatives keeps you from being overly surprised or disappointed when things don’t go as you’d hoped or planned.

♦ You are more likely to avoid magical thinking. (“I WILL meet my deadline, I will, I will!” As the deadline flies right by.)

♦ If you can honestly acknowledge possible negatives and keep going, then you’re probably on a path that’s right for you.

♦ When you’re realistic about potential challenges, you are often pleasantly surprised at the smoothness of your path.

♦ If you’re “thinking positive,” you may be inclined to think your path is going to be easier than it really is, so you won’t allow enough time to accomplish the goal, and you may not have enough diligence or discipline to get it done.

There are countless ways to apply “negative thinking” to the writing life:

♦ Instead of telling yourself simply, “I’m going to get published,” you realistically assess the obstacles and tell yourself, “I’m going to work hard, be persistent, and bust through all the barriers, and eventually get published.”

♦ Instead of telling yourself, “I know thousands of people are going to want to buy my book,” you look at how many people publish books with little success, then determine, “I’m going to pull out all the stops marketing my book so that anyone who might like it will have the opportunity to buy it.”

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not disputing the value of positive thinking. I do it all the time! But the key to success is realistic optimism — what I’ve been referring to here as “thinking negative.” Bring reality into your positive thinking, for a much brighter chance of reaching your goals.

Do you believe in “thinking negative” sometimes? How can it help you in pursuing your goals?

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Maco Stewart on July 18, 2019 at 6:05 PM

    I believe that when I have a clear picture of the real challenges ahead, in writing or publishing or any endeavor, I am then able to address those challenges as a problem solving opportunity. As Edison might have put it, we’ll try this, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try this next thing, and so on. It helps me to remove the emotional (This won’t happen! I’m not meant to do xyz!) component from the mix, and I can focus on what will move a project forward.

    Negative thinking? A part of realistic thinking. And as one of my characters said, “What we can do, what we have to do, when the unimaginable happens, is look hard for the truth, at the situation going forward. If we need to make course corrections, these are the
    times to make them, because our brilliant Great Plan failed. Reality is the only place to live.”

  2. Jennifer Monahan on July 18, 2019 at 5:12 AM

    Excellent post! Magical thinking can impede progress. Stuff happens. We’ve gotta be real, and this message yes it like it is

  3. Marja Verschoor-Meijers on July 17, 2019 at 2:55 PM

    Kind of an interesting twist here Rachelle, thanks! I am a positive thinker by nature, but I certainly do have my doubts and fears… which cause me to be realistic at times. Positive thinking is healthy, but when not followed by actions, it will not lead to success.