Have you ever given up?
What makes a person resilient? Why does one person buckle under a challenge, and another find the resources within to push through to a successful conclusion?
In his book, Learned Optimism’, Martin Seligman gives us at least part of the answer: it’s down to the way we explain success and failure. There are two explanatory styles. The pessimistic style looks at the event – let’s say the failure to hit a particular sales target – and says one of three things –
- I’ll never be able to do this
- I’m not good at this sort of thing
- It’s my fault
In other words, the pessimist assumptions are that a failure is permanent; that it affects a whole larger area of life, and that she (and she alone) is responsible for this failure. Likewise, when a pessimist succeeds against the odds, he’ll probably end up saying something like:
- I’ll never be able to do that again
- That was a fluke
- I got lucky
These kinds of reaction are common enough – we’ve probably all said at least two or three of these six statements. But contrast them with the reactions of an optimist to failure:
- I failed this time – I wonder what this teaches me?
- I can do lots of similar things- I wonder why not this?
- There are loads of reasons why: it wasn’t all my fault
And to success:
- How can I find an opportunity to do this again?
- I worked for that
- I know what I did to make this happen
The key thing is the effect that explanatory style has on us. It doesn’t take a huge leap to realise that the pessimistic style can stop us even trying, and the optimistic one encourages confidence.
Optimism isn’t like extraversion – it’s not inborn, it’s learned. And we can learn it, no matter how pessimistic our explanatory style.