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The voodoo cult of positive thinking

Lessons from Lance Armstrong's disgrace.

He might be disgraced as a sportsman but his advocacy of relentless willpower has brought hope to millions of cancer sufferers. That is the conventional view of Lance Armstrong. Sadly, the doping case against Armstrong is the least of it. Applied to sport, Armstrong’s deification of the power of positive thinking is mere fantasy. When it is applied to the question of life and death it moves into far more dangerous territory.

Armstrong built a brand in answer to the question, “What made the difference, Lance?” He nourished a narrative that apparently began as a lie and hardened into full-scale fantasy. Not talent (though he possessed plenty of that). Not drugs (though his team-mates now say he was a “pioneer of doping”). No, the difference in Armstrong’s view was his mental ability to eliminate human frailty. Armstrong recovered from testicular cancer; he then won seven yellow jerseys in the Tour de France. Those two processes became blurred in his mind – so much so that when people accused him of doping in cycling he would imply they were belittling those who had recovered from cancer.

Fanatical hatred

Does Armstrong still believe he is a genuine champion, unfairly wronged? Many people accused of doping allow themselves some wriggle room, even before they are caught. Armstrong responded to his accusers with fanatical hatred. They were cynics trying to cheat the world of genuine miracles that he, Armstrong, had made real.

Is lying the appropriate word for such a fantasist? Or do fantasists lose possession of those facts that don’t fit the version of events on which their self-image relies? Armstrong’s racing was informed by a simple mantra: I believe, therefore I will win. Armstrong’s doping denials were similarly straightforward: I believe, therefore it is true. Both sport and life had been reduced to a narrative in which willpower could defy any odds.

Armstrong told us to “believe in miracles”. But if you follow his own logic, believing in miracles doesn’t quite capture it. After all, he believed he had the power to make miracles, not just to benefit from them. He was the agent, not just the recipient. There is a term for those who can will miraculous events: gods. That is how Armstrong viewed himself. The rules that govern normal human beings no longer applied to him.

There are echoes of Tiger Woods, who has long regarded his own humanity as something that needs to be overcome rather than embraced. Feelings, emotions, vulnerabilities: they are problems that need to be ironed out, like flaws in a faulty back-swing.

But compare Armstrong’s alleged deceit with the relatively trifling deception of Woods. Woods pretended to be a family man to make a few extra million dollars in easy sponsorship deals. He was exposed but his achievements on the golf course remain valid. With Armstrong, the deceit seems far deeper and sadder.

Armstrong found many willing allies in the promotion of his myth. The public lapped up the Lance legend with hysterical enthusiasm. He was the perfect hero for our times: an icon of willpower. In sport – and in life – self-belief is now routinely invoked as the explanation for almost everything. Commentators blithely assure us that it is “all about who wants it the most”, as though sporting podiums are arranged exactly according to the amount of willpower that went into the struggle. Bronze: considerable self-belief; silver: still stronger self-belief; gold: self-belief on an epic scale.

This is pure nonsense. Inferring an exact and causal relationship between determination and success is a delusional fantasy of a society obsessed by just deserts. The true differentiating factors in elite sport are far more complex. What goes in to the making a champion? It is the subtle interplay of genes, talent, opportunity, hard work, willpower, pure luck and, in some cases, drugs. Willpower is just one factor.  Armstrong’s oversimplification of success becomes even more problematic when it is applied to the question of life and death. The misleading phrase “the battle against cancer” has a lot to answer for. A friend of mine recently died of breast cancer. It would be hard to imagine a braver, stronger-willed woman. But the cancer “won”, as cancers often do. That her death could be interpreted as a failure of willpower or positive thinking is a gross insult.

Modern gods

It is an insult that has been implied by the Armstrong message. The truth about “positive thinking” is much more nuanced. It is often a very good thing. It may even be necessary. But it is never sufficient. The Armstrong philosophy veers dangerously close to the self-help mantra of books such as The Secret. Its author, Rhonda Byrne, mused after the Java tsunami of 2006 that such events only ever afflicted people who were “on the same frequency as the event”. Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé of the positive-thinking industry, includes a chilling story from a psychiatrist at a New York cancer clinic: “Patients come in with stories of being told by well-meaning friends, ‘I’ve read all about this – if you got cancer, you must have wanted it.’ ”

Every age has its deities. The medieval mindset placed its blind faith in God. The Enlightenment anointed reason and science. Our own age has indulged a pseudoscientific cult of willpower: the deification of determination. At its best, it is a questionable creed. At its worst, it suggests that all losers must also be weaklings.

With luck, Armstrong’s career – and the legend that surrounded it –will one day be seen as the high-water mark of the voodoo cult of willpower. Paradoxically, Armstrong’s downfall may do more long-term good than his ascent. We now know that pure willpower was only one strand of Armstrong’s career. That corrective applies to all success and, by extension, to all failure. Armstrong spent his career trying to prove that willpower is the whole story. Instead, he has demonstrated that life is always far more complicated than that.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special