“Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter. Explanatory style is the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why events happen….An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, whereas a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness.” — Psychologist Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism

Seligman has found that pessimists fall into the trap of the three Ps when faced with negative change or setback. They make the issue Permanent, Pervasive and Personal. They avoid wearing clean underwear because it will only tempt car accidents.

When faced with difficult change or problems, we have three choices. We can be a Survivor and just hang in there, hoping for the best, sitting on the fence, and waiting to see what happens. Or we can choose to be a Victim, using the situation as one more example of how these terrible things keep happening to us.

The third choice – the leadership choice – is to be a Navigator and trim our sails or steer our boat to get through the storm and continue on to our preferred future. Navigators know that we’re constantly faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems. Too often we wait for someone to open the door when the handle is actually on the inside.

Navigators choose to make things happen. Survivors watch things happen. Victims complain bitterly that “this crap is always happening to me.”

A father was late getting to his son’s baseball game. As he sat down behind the players’ bench he asked one of the boys known as a real leader on the team what the score was. “We’re behind 14 to nothing,” he answered with a smile.

“Really!” the Dad replied. “I am surprised that you don’t look very discouraged.” “Discouraged?” the boy replied with a puzzled look on his face. “Why should we be discouraged? We haven’t been up to bat yet.”

Just as pessimism erodes our ability to deal successfully with change, so does optimism enhance it. Consider what some of the experts have found.

  • A University of Michigan study of 70 work teams found that within two hours people in meetings ended up sharing good or bad moods.
  • In Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee write: “No one wants to work for a grouch. Research has proven it: Optimistic, enthusiastic leaders more easily retain their people, compared with those bosses who tend toward negative moods…numerous studies show that when the leader is in a happy mood, the people around him view everything in a more positive light. That, in turn, makes them optimistic about achieving their goals, enhances their creativity and the efficiency of their decision making, and predisposes them to be helpful.” Ella Wheeler Wilcox shows us the benefits of positive choice in her poem, Optimism.

Talk happiness. The world is sad enough
Without your woes. No path is wholly rough;
Look for the places that are smooth and clear,
And speak of those, to rest the weary ear
Of Earth, so hurt by one continuous strain
Of human discontent and grief and pain.

Talk faith. The world is better off without
Your uttered ignorance and morbid doubt.
If you have faith in God, or man, or self,
Say so. If not, push back upon the shelf
Of silence all your thoughts, till faith shall come;
No one will grieve because your lips are dumb.

Talk health. The dreary, never-changing tale
Of mortal maladies is worn and stale.
You cannot charm, or interest, or please
By harping on that minor chord, disease.
Say you are well, or all is well with you,
And God shall hear your words and make them true.