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Ditch positive thinking and face reality

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Some leaders harness the power of positive thinking. Not Maarten van der ­Weijden.

A world champion swimmer and Olympic gold medalist in 2008, van der Weijden, 34, blossomed in his teens. His family and friends in the Netherlands kept urging him to think big—and aspire to become an Olympian.

But at 19, van der Weijden observed his rivals and concluded that they were better swimmers. Looking back, he says he resisted his supporters’ positive comments as “pie-in-the-sky thinking based entirely on false hope.”

Then his life changed. Diagnosed with leukemia with survival odds of 30%, he spent much time in hospitals.

Again, family and friends urged him to embrace optimism. Van der Weijden rejected their advice. Instead, he faced reality head-on.

To grapple with his grim prognosis, he set small goals: tolerate the next day with minimal pain, withstand the next round of chemotherapy, survive the stem cell transplant operation.

Three years later and cancer-free, he resumed swimming. He set incremental goals (i.e., to win small races) rather than dream of the Olympics.

Van der Weijden knew he wasn’t the most gifted swimmer before his cancer, and he was even more convinced that his rivals were stronger and quicker in his post-cancer competitions. Nevertheless, he kept setting small goals to address his shortfalls.

Van der Weijden insisted that his victories had nothing to do with a positive mindset. He simply confronted reality and set goals to improve that reality.

—Adapted from Supersurvivors, David Feldman and Lee Daniel Karvetz, Harper Wave.

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