Monday, February 14, 2011

Is the glass half full, or is it half empty?

The eternal dilemma around the simple question above does impact our daily lives... When we first came to the US, we ran into “positive talk” in everyday life.  People with whom we barely exchanged a word commented, “It was so nice to meet you”. Sales people greeted us at the store with “how are you today?” without waiting for an answer.  Coming from Israel it all sounded unauthentic. “Why don’t they simply stick to the truth?” we asked each other.

Having been born in Israel, we were raised on the “tell it like it is” principal. Typically it meant dwelling on what’s not working, what needs to be improved. The American fixation with the “positive” felt awkward and somewhat hypocritical.

The epitome of “positive talk”  happens while playing sports. For example, when I first played basketball in California. I remember taking a shot and missing the rim by a mile… “Nice shot! Good try!” encouraged my fellow American team mates. In Israel I would have been yelled at: “why did you take the shot? You should have just passed the ball!” 

Another example is when our kids started playing baseball at the minors’ league (for those who are “baseball challenged”, see primer below). Incoming baseballs paralyzed most kids at first. After all, a ball thrown straight at you at high speed can be a scary sight… The young batters often “froze” and forgot to swing, letting the ball pass by. Fortunately the pitchers were novices too, so many of the balls turned out to be stray balls…. We expected the coaches to yell at the kids who failed to swing, but to our surprise they shouted enthusiastically “good eye, good eye!” implying that the frightened kid made a smart choice not to swing…

I must confess that over time the “positive talk” rubbed on us. We got used to the “how are you?”, “good job” and “nice to meet you”. We started to see value in encouragement vs. criticism. Even believing psychologists who claim that positive feedback does wonders to a person's self esteem and motivation… 

Welcome back to Israel - the land of unflinching truth!

Our first notable encounter with Israeli-style encouragement was at the local “center for encouraging entrepreneurs” ( מ.ט.י - המרכז לטיפוח יזמות). The objective of this center is to help entrepreneurs start a business. It provides training, consulting services and assistance with business plans. My wife owned an interior design business in California (, and we’re both familiar with entrepreneurship… We wanted to find out what it takes to open a similar business here in Israel. 

We scheduled a meeting with one of the center consultants to get guidance on opening a small business here. What ensued was somewhat unexpected, or maybe not… The consultant, who surprisingly professed to know quite a bit about the Israeli interior design market, went on to list all the difficulties and hurdles we would encounter while trying to establish such a business. If we were to heed his advice, we shouldn't have even considered such an idea. That is not to say there was no basis for his “warnings”. I am sure he meant well and wanted us to be fully aware of the challenges ahead. Yes, we realize that starting a business is fraught with challenges. But wasn’t this the center for encouraging entrepreneurs?

Then came our daughter account of a feedback session she had last week on her social service project. As a background – our 18yrs old daughter participates in a wonderful program here in Israel administered by the ‘Rabin Preparatory School’ (מכינת רבין). She learns about the Israeli society, leadership and social involvement. As part of the program, she volunteers several days a week at a local school, assisting with after school programs. She helps kids with their homework and mentors them. Last week was the mid-term feedback session with the schoolteachers and the vice principal. During a 2hr session, our daughter noted that no positive feedback was given… The school personnel focused on things that went wrong, or should have been done differently.

So is “positive talk” better than the “naked truth”? Does a pat on the shoulder always trump straight talk? I’d like to believe that the truth is in the middle. The challenge is to have the right balance between the two. There are times when straight talk helps, and other times when a pat on the shoulder does wonders.  And let's not forget that the environment matters.  It is easier to be “positive” when you live in the world’s superpower (i.e. the US..). But you must “cut through the chase” and drive action when you are fighting for survival (i.e. Israel..)

So is the glass half-empty or is it half-full? It’s both. The answer depends on who’s asking, who’s answering, where is the question asked and when...

A short primer on Baseball swings, hits and misses:

The game involves a ‘batter’ standing next to the ‘home plate’, attempting to swing and hit a ball tossed by a ‘pitcher’. A ‘catcher’ crouching behind the home plate tries to catch the ball. A ball caught by the catcher within a small area called the ‘strike zone’ is counted as a ‘strike’. Otherwise it is counted as a stray ‘ball’. Unless the batter attempted to swing and missed – in which case the stray ball is also counted as a ‘strike’. The batter objective is to either hit the ball and run to the first base, or accumulate 4 ‘balls’ and earn the right to walk to the first base. The pitcher objective is to accumulate 3 ‘strikes’ and take out the batter… Experienced batters can tell by the flight of the ball whether they should attempt to swing and hit, or whether it is a stray ball. A player with a "good eye" tends to make the right choices.

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