Learning Optimism: You Find What You're Looking For

Learning Optimism: You Find What You’re Looking For

The story may date back earlier than 1917. President Reagan made it famous because it was among his favorite jokes. That’s likely where I first heard it.

A couple had twin boys who were six years old. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities – one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist – their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First, the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next, the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

With all this manure, there must be a pony in here somewhere!

Dr. Martin Seligman is the Fox Leadership Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1991 he published a book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. As the dad of two elementary school-age kids who were fast approaching junior high, I was particularly interested in seeing if I could help my children learn optimism. Self-talk was a pretty active conversation with my kids because I understood that their futures would be greatly impacted by the messages they told themselves. The book had a chapter about teaching kids to be more optimistic and included an assessment you could give them. I had my kids take the little quiz to display their level of optimism. Turns out they weren’t overly optimistic, but nor were they overly pessimistic.

The whole notion of learning optimism stuck with me. Seligman contrasted learning optimism with learning helplessness, the belief that we’re incapable of changing our circumstances. Mostly, we think of it as having a victim mentality, but I grew increasingly fond of Seligman’s term, helplessness. It seemed more insidious and made me think more people would likely disapprove of admitting helplessness when they might embrace being a victim.

As a dad I spent a lot of time coaching my kids to tell themselves positive messages. That little engine that could may have been an early childhood development story, but it’s true no matter our age.

“Think you can, think you can’t; either way you’ll be right.”  -Henry Ford

Many of us have heard this all our lives, but that doesn’t mean we’ve mastered doing it. Frequently there’s a big gap between what we know and what we do. The challenge is to control our thinking. Experience has taught me that for many of us, job one is to learn we can control our thinking because it’s easy to think we’re simply stuck with our thoughts. “We are who we are,” is the refrain of resignation. It’s as though we’re unable to grow, improve and change to develop into a better version of ourselves.

The twin boys in President Regan’s favorite joke were predisposed – one toward pessimism and the other toward optimism. We’re amused at the behavior of both of them. Maybe you’re thinking that both of them reacted ridiculously. Maybe they did, but those viewpoints had a direct impact on what each of them did. They both took action based on how they viewed the situation.

One, the pessimist, embraced misery and suffering. Helplessness was the chosen path. I’ve never found any good reason or outcome associated with helplessness.

The other, the optimist, embraced elevated expectations even in the face of apparent negativity. And again, I’ve never found any good reason or outcome that makes his viewpoint counterproductive. The only response people offer as a downside of optimism is, “You’ll be disappointed.” I laugh out loud and tell them, “We’re going to be disappointed anyway! So how does optimism hurt us?”

Listen, learning optimism isn’t about avoiding disappointment. It’s not about chasing a perfect life where everything goes exactly as we want. It’s really about something much more important.



Pessimism is about embracing helplessness. It’s about excuse-making. It’s about seeing ourselves as helpless victims unable to do anything to improve our circumstances.

Clients regularly tell me, “Well, when you put it like that…

How else would you put it?

I’m sitting across a CEO, business owner. He’s rehearsing a possible market move when he mutters, “That won’t likely pan out.” I stop him and ask, “Why not?”

He gives me a litany of reasons why it’s likely going to fail. So I ask, “Why might it work?”

He gives me an equal number (maybe more) reasons why it could likely succeed.

Then he stops and says, “I see what you did there.” And I said, “Good. I didn’t want to have to explain it again.” We chuckled.

High performers aren’t immune from bouts of pessimism. We never conquer our mind. It’s a constant act of courage to get a grip on our thoughts. But it’s the most profitable work we can do.

You Find What You’re Looking For

Some things are easy to spot and find. I was the proud owner of a Phoenix Yellow 2000 Acura Type R Integra. I easily saw the few other yellow Type R’s on the road. In fact, I more easily spotted all yellow cars because that’s what I was driving. In similar fashion, it’s easy to spot opportunities when that’s what you’re looking for. Or, it’s easy to spot challenges and difficulties when that’s what you’re looking for. Just like it’s easy to be angry, disgruntled or filled with blame when those viewpoints dominate your thoughts. We become what we constantly think about – and how we think about it. All the more reason for to be cautious and carefully guard our thoughts.

Can we change how we think?

Of course. We’ve all done it many times. We’ve changed our minds more times than we can count. It’s not always provoked by external influence either. Sometimes we just altered our decision. We choose something different. Sometimes I feel like regular mustard, sometimes I want brown spicy mustard and sometimes I want honey mustard. It’s not always something so insignificant, but it’s often not something that important either. “Where do you want to go eat?” “Do you want the green shirt or the blue one?” “What do you want to drink?” Life is filled with lots of daily decisions that vary depending on our mood or preference in that moment.

Those changes in our mind don’t usually have anything to do with optimism.

Optimism is…

hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something

Mustard. Dining choices. Color selections. Those aren’t choices made with hopefulness or hopelessness. They’re just whatever we want at the time.

Weightier things – like relationships, careers, finances, and other activities that define our lives – tend to be determined by our outlook, our approach and how we see the world. And our place in it.

I’ll bet you, or somebody you know, frequently say things to demonstrate how unlucky they feel they are. I understand why people who feel just the opposite probably just keep quiet about it. It’d sound like bragging, but I do know people who – from where I’m looking – appear to have a Midas touch. Remarkably, they’re not the brightest or the best, but they sure do seem to find success in most everything they attempt.

Years of looking at folks like that has shown me a few things.

  1. These folks expect to succeed. They don’t ever begin something thinking it’ll fail. In fact, they don’t even consider it as a possibility. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just means they don’t give it any space in their brain. They make their first step and every step after that with the assumption that it’ll work.
  2. These folks have an unabashed zest for promoting their work. They have no reservations about shouting to the world that their pursuit is worth supporting.
  3. They don’t let challenges or setbacks determine the final outcome. They have a resilience forged in their optimism that they’ll figure this out. The challenge is merely a blip to be dealt with. And quickly. Challenges are not roadblocks, but speed bumps that slow down their progress. It’s often humorous to me how they get angry at challenges, not discouraged. It’s a “how dare you slow me down?” spirit.
  4. They have no reservations about changing their mind. If success isn’t quite what they were aiming for, they’ll pull the plug without fear. If the success is wonderful, they may find a great exit so they can get on with their next conquest. Most don’t start with this in mind, but they quickly adapt because they don’t get hung up about changing their mind.

Confidence plays a big role. Confidence in what? Confidence in our own competence. It doesn’t mean we have to be the smartest. It just means we have to be confident in our abilities, skills and whatever else we’ve got to accomplish this thing. Or to figure it out. In what else would we be confident?

Optimism isn’t based on being world-class. If that were the case, then only a very select few would be able to practice it. It’s based on our belief in ourselves, but that seems rather self-centered so there must be more to it. Or is there?

Randy Cantrell

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