How To Get Optimistic

In my last two tips I’ve described the benefits you get from using optimistic explanations when you have setbacks in your business (“What Optimism Will Get You”) and what the elements of such an optimistic explanation are (“The Elements of Optimism That Can Unblock You”).  I have culled this information for business owners from Martin Seligman’s classic book Learned Optimism, which is filled with ways to use optimism in multiple areas of your life. I recommend going to the source if you really want to dig in and make significant change to your whole life.

Of course, some people are naturally optimistic. If that is you, you have my permission to skip the rest of this post. This post is for the rest of us. It shows us how to develop an optimistic explanatory style to use when things go wrong in our business so that we can avoid feeling helpless and instead keep our energy and motivation going.

First, a quick recap. A pessimist explains bad things that happen in her business as permanent (“I’ll never sell this”), universal (“no one wants what I have to offer”), and internal (“It’s all my fault; I’m horrible at marketing”). An optimist explains his setbacks as temporary (“My sales figures have gone down with the dip in the local economy, but they’ll go up again when the economy picks up”), specific (“The last person I talked to didn’t need my services, but the next one might”), and external (“She wouldn’t listen to my offer all the way through; now must be a bad time for her”). For more examples of what this looks like, check out my last article.

Seligmandebate has an involved technique using the ABCDE model from cognitive therapy to recognize and change your pessimistic explanations to optimistic ones, but I’m going to boil it down to its essence here, which is the “D.” “D” stands for “dispute.” When you catch yourself overwhelmed or feeling like giving up when you have a setback, call to mind what you told yourself about it. You probably have thoughts like: “I’m such a loser;” or “Why would anyone hire me?” or “Nothing is ever going to work out.” Those thoughts feel pretty powerful—and true—don’t they? And they sap your energy for going forward, making you feel like giving up.

Now imagine that those words were being yelled at you by your worst enemy. They don’t feel so true or powerful now, do they? In fact, you probably would tell your enemy exactly where he got it wrong. It’s time for a big realization. You are your worst enemy. So dispute what you are saying the same way you would dispute it if it came from your enemy.

Of course, this is easier said than done. You’ve probably got years, maybe a lifetime, of practice coming up with such negative explanations. So Seligman provides four ways to dispute with yourself:

  • look for the evidence;
  • consider alternative ways of looking at what happened;
  • think about the real implications of what happened; and
  • decide how useful your explanation is.

What Is The Evidence?

So you have been telling yourself a lot of lies and half-truths with these negative explanations for what happened. They only feel true because they are coming from inside of you. But just because they feel true doesn’t make them true. I’ve heard of one ABCDE approach that describes “E” as “play detective and look for the Evidence.” Look for the evidence that what you told yourself is true or false, or likely to be true or false. Look for ways that it is overstated. Look for what the statement missed. Be Sherlock Holmes. Often you will find you jumped to the worst possible conclusion based on very thin evidence indeed. This can often come up naturally when you think about disputing what an enemy said.

What Are the Alternatives?

So you’ve told yourself that you are a total loser and nothing ever goes right for you because something went off the rails at work. I know, I know, it feels true. Stop listening to your feelings now and listen to your head. What are other ways to look at what happened? If you are having trouble getting started, go back to the list. You are looking for explanations of the negative event that make it temporary, specific and limited to what happened, and/or due to causes outside of you.

If this still has you stumped, ask a friend you trust to give her alternatives. Don’t argue with her, just write down her list. Some of her possible explanations will be acceptable as is. You can also use her ideas as a springboard to get your own creative thoughts flowing.

Once you have a few alternatives on your list, you can go back to look at the evidence. Which one fits the evidence you have best? Or if there is no evidence, recognize that you can’t choose between the alternatives. (“She just hung up on me. I don’t know if she’s mad about the report, just got an urgent message about her kid, or AT&T decided to take away my cell phone service again. It could be any of them.”)

What Are the Implications of Your Explanation?

Let’s say that your explanation is correct. Yes, this client has fired you and is never coming back because you screwed something up. Does that really mean no one will ever hire you again? That you have nothing to offer? That all your clients will pull their business and you will have to go into bankruptcy? That you will end up living under a bridge? Take a deep breath and stop catastrophizing. Go back to the evidence. Consider what is likely to happen. Then look at what you can do to improve the situation going forward.

How Useful Is Your Explanation?

Let’s say you got yourself dead to rights. You screwed up big time and it’s bad. Will thinking about that screw up now do you any good? Of course, if you make a mistake you want to learn from it. (“My presentation was really poor. I probably did my reputation some damage with that one. I need to get some help on developing my presentation skills and put in some practice before the next one.”) But what about just brooding about how bad it went; going over and over how you blew it? Is that really useful? Probably more likely it is getting in the way of things you need to do, so you need to stop thinking about it.

There are three great ways to get out of dwelling on a negative event:

  • Do something physically distracting, then force yourself to think about something else that can hold your attention. So, if you keep flashing on that awful presentation, splash cold water on your face or snap a rubber band on your wrist whenever the thought comes to mind. Then think about, say, what additional product your favorite client might need from you. For this to work, you will want to have your interesting alternative thing to think about worked out in advance.
  • Schedule a time to think about what is bothering you. Then, whenever you catch yourself dwelling on the event, you tell yourself “Stop! I’ll work on that at 8 tonight.” You need to actually schedule the time, it needs to be at least fifteen minutes, and you really need to sit down and think about it during that time for this to work, though.
  • Write down your troubling thoughts as soon as they come up. You can then come back to work on ways to fix the mess deliberately rather than having the thoughts come up and pull your focus at inconvenient times.

Of course, you could combine two or all three of these approaches to get the maximum benefit. Schedule a time to think about the negative event. Then, whenever a negative thought about it comes up, write it down, snap that rubber band, say “I’ll think about this at 8 tonight” and think about something else. Or just pick one approach. Whichever you choose, do something to get on with what is important to you and get out of the negative spiral of dwelling on a negative event.

Get Optimistic

So go ahead and dispute the negative things you tell yourself when things go wrong. Pretend that a drunk on the street just said what you told yourself. Tell him all the ways he’s wrong. Tell him what the evidence is. Tell him the big picture and the real implications for what happened. Or decide what he’s saying is not useful now and take steps to turn your attention on to other matters. Whatever you do, don’t roll over and take it. You wouldn’t take it from a drunk or your worst enemy. So don’t take it from yourself. Dispute it and get your energy and motivation back. It may just be the way to get your business on track.

The Elements of Optimism That Can Unblock You

Last week I started a series on the practical application of Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism to improve your results in your work. Last week in my post What Optimisim Will Get You I explained why using an optimistic approach can get you past some of your blocks and when to use it. This week I’ll explain the three elements of the optimistic explanatory style that get you motivated and energized.

Optimism as Seligman describes it is not some sort of dewy-eyed, happy-go-lucky approach to life that someone is born with. Likewise, being pessimistic does not mean going around being grouchy all the time. Instead they are ways of explaining events in your life. And since you can learn how to use an optimistic explanatory style, you can get the benefits of being an optimist even if you’ve never thought of yourself as one before. (By the way, if you think of yourself as a “realist,” you most likely use a pessimistic explanatory style more often than not.)

We will focus here on ways to get unblocked by changing how you explain to yourself why bad things happen in your job or business. Explain setbacks the wrong way and you’ll feel helpless, like it isn’t worth trying anymore, and your career or business will suffer accordingly. Explain them in the right way and you’ll bounce back quickly from the same setbacks, sometimes with more excitement and energy than ever, leading to all sorts of good results at work. So identifying when your explanations are blocking you and changing them to more motivating language are important skills to develop.

After the big quake hit.Everyone feels at least momentarily helpless in the face of a failure. The pessimist decides he is helpless and gives up. The optimist looks at the same failure and thinks of ways to limit it so he can go on to succeed. To react to a setback with optimism, you need to look at the three Ps of how you explain what happened, or your explanatory style: Permanence, Pervasiveness and Personalization.

Permanence: Temporary (Optimistic) v. Permanent (Pessimistic)

First, Permanence. An optimist thinks of a bad thing as a temporary setback, arising out of temporary conditions that will or can be changed. A pessimist believes it is something permanent that’s going to last for a long time because it was caused by traits that will not change in himself, or the economy, or in potential buyers, or in “people.” To use the optimistic approach, look for ways that a situation is temporary or the conditions for it can be changed.

  • Instead of thinking “No one is going to buy from my company in such a bad economy; I’m doomed,” you might think “Yes, the economy is bad right now, but it always cycles out of downturns eventually. I just need a plan for how to get through this lean patch.” Or “What can I provide that people need now because the economy is bad.”
  • Instead of “That was terrible. I’ll never get the hang of sales,” think “I blew that sales pitch, but I can go back over my notes and practice for the next one, and maybe get some pointers from my friend on how to handle that kind of objection.”
  • Instead of “My boss ignored my idea at the meeting because she doesn’t want to try anything new. I won’t bug her about it anymore,” try something like “My boss has seemed pretty out of it lately. Maybe she has too much on her plate to consider my idea right now. I can check back with her in a few weeks to see if anything has changed.”

So if you catch yourself thinking people, or situations, or even you, are “always” or “never” a certain way, and will never change, find ways to limit your conclusions. Remember: situations and people change all the time, so “always” and “never” thoughts are usually wrong on their face. Dig deeper for ways change may happen.

Pervasiveness: Specific (Optimistic) v. Universal (Pessimistic)

Next, Pervasiveness. A pessimist thinks a setback in one area means everything is going to go bad in all areas. She sees it as a universal failure. An optimist sees the setback as limited to the one event. He sees the failure as specific. Here’s how those two explanatory styles might look:

  • “All bosses will throw you under the bus to save their own career (so I’ll just keep my head down” v. “This boss will throw me under the bus to save his career (and I better get my resume updated)!”
  • “My services are worthless” v. “My services are worthless to this guy, but maybe that guy over there needs what I do right now.”
  • “The job market is in the tank. No one is getting hired right now. I’m never going to get an interview” v. “The overall numbers don’t look good, but my region is picking up faster than other parts of the country” or “my industry is actually growing” or “I’m not getting hired by statistics; I just need one offer from one company with one opening. There is always turnover from people retiring, moving away, or even dying. Something will open up if I just keep sending out resumes and networking.

Personalization: Externalization (Optimistic) v. Internalization (Pessimistic)

Finally, Personalization. A pessimist internalizes the cause for a failure, saying “I’m the cause of this problem” and calls themselves names (“I’m such an idiot.” “I can’t sell lemonade to people in the desert.” “I’m a total failure in this job.”) An optimist externalizes the cause, blaming outside people or forces. (“My co-workers didn’t do their homework.”)

Two things to be aware of on this last explanatory pitfall. First, it is the least important, so if you have limited time to make changes in your own explanatory style, focus on the other two. Second, and more importantly, you will not improve if you do not take responsibility for your mistakes. If you caused a problem, or were a significant reason for a failure, own that. But don’t call yourself names. Instead look at how you can change, learn or grow from what happened. That’s the optimistic and effective approach that will lead to better results in your career or business.

For the next week, pay attention to how you use the 3 Ps when something goes wrong. Do you see it as a permanent problem that is pervasive throughout all areas that is caused by your personal failings? If you find you lean toward any of those pessimistic explanations, you will want to get started on changing your explanations so you can be more effective and energized when you want.

Coming up next, I’ll detail some of Seligman’s specific techniques for changing a pessimistic explanatory style to an optimistic one.