Your Attitude, Not Your Aptitude, Often Determines Your Altitude

How we experience life matters a lot. Have you ever wondered how two people, who seem to experience the same thing, have two totally different views of what happened? Consider twin boys who grew up in an extremely dysfunctional family of alcoholics. One grew up to become an alcoholic and the other a teetotaler. Yet it was said of or by each, “What did you expect?” Having an optimistic orientation is much more than a sunny personality and the benefits are much more than psychological. Why is it that some people in the face of any adversity are able to cope, see the silver lining, and make adjustments, while others only see the obstacles and difficulties ahead? More importantly, does it matter to the people they lead?

Optimism comes from the Latin word optimus which means best. Optimists believe that most things will turn out well. They communicate through smiles not frowns; hope not despair; and action not inaction. The science of power and understanding of positive psychology, popularized by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has its roots in happiness and fulfillment and is seen as a complement to traditional psychology. The power of optimism is quite compelling as optimistic people tend to live longer, are generally happier, and are high achievers. Seligman argues that optimism is a learned behavior meaning that people can develop skills in this area over time.

According to Clifton and Rath, 99 out of 100 people prefer to be around positive people. Furthermore, others believe they work more productively around positive people. Think about the first day of school anywhere. Have you ever been warmly welcomed and invited by a new teacher with a smile? I remember a sixth grade team of teachers in the school where I was principal creating a banner that declared, “Welcome to the best year of your life!” Now contrast that with a welcome from people who look like they have been weaned on a dill pickle. Who motivates you more to want to learn or to perform at your best?

Working with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, Martin Seligman tracked 15,000 new consultants who had taken two tests—the company’s regular screening exam and Seligman’s profile measuring levels of optimism. The results? A group of new hires that had failed MetLife’s screening test, but scored as “”super optimists” on Seligman’s exam out sold the pessimists by 21 percent in the first year and 57 percent in the second. What about teachers? Battelle for Kids has studied highly effective teachers across the country over multiple years. Through interviews, it was clear that they were incredibly optimistic about the prospects for their students’ learning.

The truth is we often see what we look for. Michelangelo once said, “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” Optimistic leaders believe things will turn out well, and in turn, develop a cadre of people who want to follow them. It’s a conscious choice people make to inspire confidence where difficulty lies and a vision of what can be, as opposed to a lesser picture of what is.

Ania Striker