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It’s Not a Catastrophe! Don’t Build a “Jack Story.”©

By on September 2, 2007 – 12:01 am  23 Comments

David J. Pollay, MAPP '06, is a co-founder of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). David has an Economics degree from Yale University and has held leadership positions at Yahoo!, MasterCard, Global Payments and AIESEC. He is an Executive Coach who specializes in business relationships. He is also an author and keynote speaker known for his best-selling books, The Law of the Garbage Truck (how to navigate negativity) and The 3 Promises (how to create personal fulfillment every day). David's articles are here. For permission to reprint David's articles, please contact him.

There’s one line that keeps me from dwelling on the negative when difficult things happen in my life.  It’s the moral of a story my dad told me when I was growing up.   It’s a version of the classic comedy routine by Danny Thomas.
Here’s the way Dad told it. 

   Flat Tire

“A guy is driving through the desert when one of his tires blows out.  He gets out of his car and pops open the trunk to look for a spare tire and a jack.  He sees the spare, but there’s no jack.  “Oh s*#&!,” he yells.  ‘I’ve got to walk back to the gas station I passed five miles ago!’”
“So he starts walking.  ‘I hope he has a jack,’ he says to himself.  Half way there he mumbles anxiously, ‘He better have a jack.’  When he’s almost there he growls, ‘That son of a b#@t% better let me use his jack!’” 
“Minutes later he finally arrives at the gas station.  He’s hot; he’s frustrated; he’s fuming.  He sees the station owner in the garage and he walks up to him and says, ‘Hey buddy!  You can just forget it!  Keep your g#@ d@% jack!’”
“He turns around and walks five miles back to his car…with no jack.”
And then this is when Dad looked at me, smiled, and warned:  “Don’t build a Jack Story.”
Dad believed you gain nothing by obsessing on the worst things that could happen in a situation.  Why invest all your energy in imagining only scenarios that end poorly?  Not only do you make yourself feel terrible, you still have to deal with the problem at hand. 
Psychologists Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte wrote about the perils of catastrophic thinking in their book, The Resilience Factor.  “For many people, their anxiety takes over and they catastrophize – they dwell on a current adversity and within a few minutes have imagined a chain of disastrous events stretching into the future.”
Reivich and Shatte outline an effective five-step method for countering catastrophic thinking.  Here’s what they suggest. 

  • Name your adversity and the worst-case things you believe could happen as a result.
  • Evaluate the probability that each of these events will happen.  You’ll see the odds are long against any of them coming to pass.
  • Next, think of the best-case scenarios possible.  They should be so unrealistic that they make you smile, or even laugh.  You want to break your “doom and gloom” thinking.
  • Now that you’ve plotted the extreme cases – you’ve identified the worst and the best possible results – focus on the most likely outcomes of the adversity.
  • Then with your new-found perspective, come up with a solution to remedy the problem.

The bottom line is that we all experience setbacks.  Unfortunately, we often forget to look at these situations like even-tempered Sergeant Joe Friday – “all we want are the facts” – on the classic television show, Dragnet.  Instead, we turn into Chicken Little and say, “The sky is falling.”
Martin Seligman, best known for his research on learned helplessness, learned optimism, and his role in founding the science of Positive Psychology, believes that pessimism rarely serves us well.  Seligman summarized the result of over twenty years of research on pessimism in his book Authentic Happiness: “Pessimists…are up to eight times more likely to become depressed when bad events happen; they do worse at school, sports, and most jobs than their talents augur; they have worse physical health and shorter lives; they have rockier interpersonal relations, and they lose American Presidential elections to their more optimistic opponents.”
Remember Seligman’s research on pessimism:  It doesn’t pay well.  So follow Reivich and Shatté’s advice to counter catastrophic thinking.
Just remember what my dad said, “Don’t build a Jack Story.”



Peterson, C., Maier, S. & Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Learned Helplessness: A Theory for the Age of Personal Control. New York: Freeman.

Reivich, K, & Shatté, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.

Image: Flat tire courtesy of Cromely


  • David,

    A whole new spin on Jack Tales!

    I thought you meant the folklore tales where Jack fools the giants —

    It also reminds me of some advice printed in our employee paper back in the first gas crisis years ago: Why haul your spare around all the time? You hardly ever need it!

    I think a giant wrote that advice.


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Kathryn,

    Great site on “Jack Tales” Kathryn! As we talked about last month, it’s fascinating how some of the most important guiding principles in our lives first came to us – and continue to stick with us – through stories.

    Have a great rest of the weekend!


  • Tamara says:

    Great story and point, David. Our thought processes can be so ingrained and automatic. Good to be reminded we have the power to change them. First step is awareness. Thanks!

  • Senia says:

    Thanks, David, really enjoyed this story!

  • Katie B. says:

    David–this is a great story that I’ve forwarded along to my co-workers. Currently, we’re building a team of innovative thinkers who are trying to go out and change the world, and we don’t want them to be limited by anything–especially not themselves! Thanks!

  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Tamara,

    Thanks for the post Tamara! It is great when we can uncover our limiting beliefs and habits, and replace them with ones that help us.

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Thanks Senia! It’s always great to hear from you!

    Best to you,


  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Katie,

    I can feel your energy! Your team is lucky to have you!

    It is fascinating to set ambitious goals, and then figure out what beliefs and thoughts we must have in order to achieve them. What we do is made possible by our thinking.

    Have fun with your great work!

    Best to you,


  • Bob says:

    Great story! I will be sharing this with our team to provoke some deeper thinking.

    Keep up the great work – enjoy your material very much!


  • Chris says:


    Another great story. I really enjoy the research you reference. It really adds weight to the truth that your Dad oviously already has a good grasp of.

  • Mikey says:

    I sure can dig this atricle. So often I must remind myself as well as others not to make a Jack story out of certain situations. And boy does it work. On behalf of all of us story builders let me say, Let’s keep our noses despite our faces. (plus, memo to myself: make sure the Jack is still in the car)

  • Lillian says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for this very practical article. Seeing the negative in a situation and focusing on it seems to be the human condition. We are lucky to have these well researched articles from you. You show us the way; it’s like turning on the light. Many thanks and keep them coming. Lillian

  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Bob,

    Thanks Bob for your post and support. And thanks for sharing the idea with your team!

    Best to you,

  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Chris,

    Thanks for the post Chris. Dad is not a scientist, but his advice sure lines up with the work of Reivich and Shatte (and also Seligman). It’s a wonderful thing to be able to tell your mother and father, “your advice all those years was not only good, it’s now scientifically grounded!”

    Best to you,

  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Mikey,

    I’m glad to hear this approach to working through catastrophic thinking works for you. And thanks for spreading the word. And I love your “note to self!”

    Best to you,

  • David J. Pollay says:

    Hi Lillian,

    Thanks for your support and post. It’s so easy to dwell only on the negative; it’s liberating to know that there is always another way to look at a situation. Thanks again for writing!

    Best to you,

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  • Terry says:

    David: While “googling” the jack story I came across yours.

    Your Dad didn’t invent that story but was simply repeating the standard joke that Danny Thomas used to tell in his act. It was a classic and he could build it and build it, till you were laughing before the punch line.
    I was actually looking to find a recording or printed copy of Thomas’ original story, but so far with no success.
    As for the value behind the story, it is so true of many of us. I wanted to get the original to show my wife, who I now accuse of occasionally….building that mountain out of a molehill (ie: a jack story).
    If you ever come across the original (Danny Thomas), you’ll enjoy what your father was trying to convey.

  • Thanks, Terry! Danny Thomas was great. I know my dad was telling a story from years ago, but he couldn’t remember where he first heard it. Now we know. I just added a line about Danny Thomas. Thanks for letting me know.

    As you said, the moral of the story still resonates today.

    Best to you,

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