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The Sydney Opera House – Positive Psychology in Organizations – Stretch Goals

written by Dave Shearon 17 February 2008

Dave Shearon, MAPP, applies positive psychology to both law and education. Dave writes articles about applications of Positive Psychology to law and education at his site. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

Dave's articles are here.

A few weeks ago, Teresa and I got to take the tour of the Sydney Opera House.  It is an amazing structure and a case study in the capacity of strengths-based action, the power of a compelling vision, and the need for those who can recongize and nurtue such visions. 

The design for the opera house was the result of a world-wide competition in 1955-56.  Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect submitted the winning design, but it did not meet the criteria of the competition and had drawings described as “simple to the point of being diagrammatic.”  One of the judges did a crayon sketch to use in presenting the winning design to the Permier and public.  The design was so far different from the prevailing state of architecture (though not entirely without precedent), that one widely reported story about the selection process relates that Utzon’s design was discarded in the initial pass and only reconsidered when a late-arriving judge demanded to see the discarded entries, recognized its genius, and brought it back into consideration.  Not only were the drawings rough, there was little evidence that the concept could be constructed.  And, in fact, the original exact approach was abandoned as unworkable during construction and Utzon created an entirely new approach, but one that captured the vision of his original drawings.  I have not been able to find a representation of the earliest drawings, but here’s one that seems to be close, and a picture of the finished structure:

sydney-opera-house-rough-sketch.jpg  sydney-opera-house.jpg

As a plan, this was a total flop.  As a vision, it had its share of critics.   While one commentator thought it “a magnificent piece of poetry”, another called it “a piece of Danish pastry.”   One saw it as “some large and lovely ship of the imagination” while another could only see “a disintegrating circus tent in a gale.”  Nevermind.  Today it is an iconic, functional structure known round the world than generates tremendous income and recognition for Sydney and New South Wales.

I have recently had the opportunity to present on positive psychology to a variety of professionals, including a group of school superintendents.  Our three sessions together so far have focused on Positive Emotions, Positive Thought Patterns, and Positive Relationships.  We will finish up with a session on Positive Organizations.  In many ways, I feel like I am providing them with the equivalent of Utzon’s original diagrammatic drawings.  Just hints and a vision.  The real architecture, the cultural engineering challenges of developing common language, tools, and mechanisms that can weave optimism, hope, joy, gratitude, well-being and “other people matter” deeply into both schools and system leadership — that challenge will require effort, creativity, collaboration, leadership and resources.  The same challenges await lawyers who have heard my talks, whether they focus on their individual lives and practices or on the shared lives and practices in a firm.

I usually make three disclaimers when speaking on positive psychology:

  1. I’m not preaching (though it may sound like something you’ve heard a religious person say).
  2. I’m not selling positive thinking (though it may sound like it at times).
  3. This isn’t magic; it’s science.

The last point just means that the work of positive psychology is based on evidence and statistical analysis of that evidence.  No instrument and no intervention is “magic.”  They don’t always work, they are not perfect, and they do require effort and thoughtfulness in application. 

Having given those disclaimers, however, I am comfortable that the work of the great researchers in this field has produced a set of understandings that can be integrated into an inspiring, visionary icon that can guide individual and organization growth.  Positive psychology, applied, can produce human organizational and life structures that are satisfying, beautiful, and functional.  That is a vision that we can share and claim.  It’s a dream that is doable and worth doing.  It is a work to value and savor at the end of a lifetime of effort.  There are those who criticize, who see a disintegrating tent rather than a lovely ship.  So be it.  The truth is that we will together create better ways to live and be together, or not.  The only way to succeed is to try.  Negativity is easy — it’s also fruitless.  I take the Sydney Opera House as a parable of the power of vision to pull us forward into creativity, collaboration, and change.  May you find and claim your own parables, and if this one works for you — welcome!




Watson, A. (2006). Building a Masterpiece: The Sydney Opera House, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney.

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Jeff Dustin 17 February 2008 - 12:49 pm

What a beautiful structure! It reminds me of the Denver Airport. That’s another place I’d love to visit. Maybe after the Great Wall, I’ll take a trip to Australia.

Good job, Dave.

Kirsten Cronlund 18 February 2008 - 11:37 am


Reading your article is so therapeutic for me. I have also been speaking to leaders in education and elsewhere on the topic of positive psychology, and I have had similar reactions as what you’re describing. I know we’re at the front of a wave that is, certainly, gaining momentum, and I find it so helpful to hear from others who believe in the possibilites for doing things differently. Let’s all collaborate together to add strength to the message… Thanks for your great article!


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