Learned Optimism

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.

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