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Optimists and Pessimists at Work

“Success is measured by your ability to maintain enthusiasm between failures.”

-- Sir Winston Churchill

Mahatma Gandhi, Norman Cousins, Helen Keller, Christopher Reeves and Thomas Edison are just a few names that come to mind in a discussion about optimism and success.

Mozart is another example of a genius who had exemplary self-confidence in the face of adversity. A psychological analysis of his correspondence shows that he carried optimism to an almost pathological extreme. Toward the end of his life, when he suffered the deaths of four children, serious illnesses and repeated professional and financial disasters, his optimism actually rose.

People who are considered successful in life measure high on assessments of optimistic attitudes. It would be easy to presume they are optimistic because they are successful, but there is enough research to show that the optimism comes first.

Traditional wisdom puts forth the idea that to be successful, you must have two things:  

1. Talent or aptitude

            2. Motivation

More recent research shows that a third element contributes strongly to success:

3. An optimistic attitude, particularly in the face of adversity.

High scores for optimism are predictive of excellence in everything from sports to health, elections and sales. Dr. Martin Seligman has shown that optimists not only do better educationally and in their careers, they also enjoy superior health and longevity. Dr. Seligman, a researcher and psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of Learned Optimism. He has spent a lifetime studying why some people are more resilient than others.

Optimism Can Be Learned

Very few of us were lucky enough to have been raised with an attitude of optimism. Research shows that it is learned in childhood from maternal caretakers. Psychologists who teach the skills of optimism in their books are Seligman (Learned Optimism), Albert Ellis (Rational Emotive Therapy), David Burns (Feeling Good), and Aaron Beck (Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders).

Pessimists, passive optimists and dynamic optimists all selectively focus their attention. Studies show that pessimists are actually more realistic than optimists. Dynamic optimists interpret their experiences differently than other people. They also influence outcomes differently by translating effective thoughts into specific kinds of actions.

The different ways in which optimists and pessimists focus their attention lead to noticing different things, experiencing different motivations, and taking different actions. The pessimist focuses on problems, pains, and pitfalls. The passive optimist sees only what is encouraging and enjoyable and does not see potential obstacles. This leads to missed opportunities or limited success.  At its worst, it leads to failure, frustration and ill health.

Thus the dynamic optimist dwells on the constructive and enjoyable while de-emphasizing pain, difficulty and frustration. Such a person can look at a frustrating event, fully accept its reality, then choose to interpret the event in a way that leads to action, growth and mastery. They recognize dangers but have a wider vision open to solutions, possibilities.

“Optimalists tend to be benefit finders—the sort of people who find the silver lining in the dark cloud, who make lemonade out of lemons, who look on the bright side of life, and who do not fault writers for using too many cliches. With a knack for turning setbacks into opportunities, the Optimalist goes through life with an overall sense of optimism.”~ Tal Ben-Shahar from The Pursuit of Perfect

Seeing that optimalist and optimism come from the same Latin word for “best” (optimus), it makes sense that an optimalist would be an optimist.

I appreciate the distinction between “fault finders” and “benefit finders.”  Which are you? Do you focus on the lemonade when you get a lemon or do you prefer to complain about what life gives you? 

Now seems like a good time to explore this distinction further. What’s the #1 thing that’s stressing you out right now? 

If it’s *really* bothering you, we can rest assured that you’re in fault finding mode. The best way to get your optimism and therefore “Optimalist”) on is to get into a benefit finding mode.

What are the top 3 things you can really appreciate about your current challenges?

1. __________________________________________________

2. __________________________________________________

3. __________________________________________________

If you are working with an executive coach, you can use the opportunity to work on developing the skills of optimism.

1. Become mindful of your awareness: look at how you selectively focus on events.

2. Examine your internal dialogue; then change what you tell yourself.

3. Do something pleasurable to distract yourself from bad events.

You can develop these qualities by working with a professional coach. The investment is well worth the reward: your ability to influence the future, your career and your personal-development capabilities.

Are you working in a company where executive coaches provide leadership development to help leaders become more optimistic? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to develop positivity? Enlightened leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.

One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “Am I an optimist or pessimist?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching to help leaders create a positive work culture.

Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders be more optimistic about the future. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.

Working Resources is a San Francisco Bay Area Executive Coaching Firm Helping Innovative Companies and Law Firms Assess, Select, Coach, Engage  and Retain Emotionally Intelligent Leaders; Executive Coaching; Leadership Development; Performance-Based Interviewing; Competency Modeling; Succession Management; Culture Change; Career Coaching and Leadership Retreats

...About Dr. Maynard Brusman

Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach
Trusted Advisor to Senior Leadership Teams

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist and executive coach. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies select and develop emotionally intelligent leaders.  Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.

“Maynard Brusman is one of the foremost coaches in the United States. He utilizes a wide variety of assessments in his work with senior executives and upper level managers, and is adept at helping his clients both develop higher levels of emotional intelligence and achieve breakthrough business results. As a senior leader in the executive coaching field, Dr. Brusman brings an exceptional level of wisdom, energy, and creativity to his work.” — Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D., President, College of Executive Coaching

For more information, please go to, write to, or call 415-546-1252.

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