Negative or positive, pessimist or optimist, dreamer or naysayer, risk-taker or risk-avoider, hopeful or fearful. We tend to categorize people in an either-or fashion. If someone exhibits a particular character trait in one instance, she/he must, therefore, be that way in all instances.

Such dualistic thinking – like the 24/7 partisan spin so prevalent in our political system – makes solving our social problems more difficult by reducing complex people and deeply held beliefs to cartoonish stereotypes.

The idea that if we could just convince 50.1 percent of the people to see things the “correct” way we could solve our problems is at best naive and at worst self-serving.

By writing over the past several weeks about certain character traits I have observed in Maine people as presenting obstacles to our future economic prosperity, I have been both praised and vilified. Both responses are unfortunate. I don’t intend my observations to be moral judgments. Nor do I believe that character traits are immutable.

Successful economic development policy is not the one that brings all the positive, optimistic, risk-taking dreamers to power. It is, rather, the one that allows more and more people of all character types to experience success.

Its goal is not to bring people with a specified set of character traits to power; nor is it to achieve a desired behavior or policy by changing character traits. It is to provide and share experiences of successful change, thereby allowing people to perceive and react to change differently. Since most major economic changes for most Maine people over the past generation or two have been experienced as negative, it is hardly surprising that many, perhaps even most, see change as negative and therefore to be resisted.

Most people agree that teaching someone how to fish is better than simply providing a fish. Most would also agree that classroom lectures on fish biology and videos on habitat protection are poor substitutes for casting flies on a stream and frying the catch by a wilderness campsite for coming to experience “fishing.”

So it must be for economic development. Those promoting economic development through major changes must cut short the evangelical lectures by “experts” and expand the experience of participating in a common enterprise.

At its core, the word “entrepreneurship” means “take together.” Enterprise is a common endeavor. Isolated geniuses and solitary tinkerers may invent and innovate, but only entrepreneurial leaders and followers – the participants in a shared endeavor – transform societies.

Over many years, General Motors grew to be the largest privately owned enterprise in the world. It designed, built and distributed a series of car brands in a certain way for a certain set of loyal buyers. For years it thrived. But as its insistence on “the GM way” became an obstacle to understanding the ultimate purpose of the enterprise – to make cars people wanted to buy – the company faltered. It lost sales, market share plummeted, once iconic brands became obsolete and the one-time biggest company fell into bankruptcy, saved only by U.S. taxpayers from liquidation.

Many GM employees and dealers fought the changes made in bankruptcy, fearing loss of their jobs and businesses. But in the end – at least so far – those dedicated to salvaging the enterprise won the day. They made the tough choices and stood firm for needed changes with the result that – again, at least so far – the taxpayers have been repaid and a new company with at least a fighting chance of survival has emerged.

We in Maine face a similar struggle. We must decide who among us is committed not simply to saving a job that once was useful but to saving this enterprise of which we are a part. The choice is not between character traits but between the future character of the enterprise we call Maine.

Is it to be a thriving new venture filled with enthusiastic entrepreneurs pursuing new ways to reach out into the world?

Or is it to be a broken-up shell of its former self, composed of a thriving, weekend food-oriented northern neighborhood of Boston, a summer colony for the global 1 percent and a withering rural periphery, dreaming of past glories?

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]