By Steven Berglas, PhD
Benjamin Franklin encouraged us all to ”keep in the sunlight.” Here are a few tricks.
Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them. –Epictitus (AD 55-AD 135)
Athletes, entrepreneurs (especially the serial brand) and other high-performers get dealt the same number of bad hands as the rest of us. What sets them apart is their conviction that they can play those hands better than anyone at the table. What accounts for that perspective?
This trait is often confused with brashness, egotism, even recklessness. High-profile winners like Sir Richard Branson only add to the confusion: When he’s not expanding his Virgin brand, Branson seems obsessed with breaking speed or distance records in boats and balloons, with ostensibly little regard for physical safety
My favorite serial entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin, wasn’t an adrenaline junkie. A grade-school dropout who launched lots of ventures (including the Franklin stove and bifocals, as well as our nation’s first public library and first fire department), Franklin advised everyone to “not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.”
Pretty words. But how to pull them off?
As Epictitus observed 2,000 years ago and cognitive therapists confirm today, a person’s experiences are dependent upon how he explains them to himself. Optimists refuse to interpret events in negative terms that yield debilitating conclusions.
For an optimist, every problematic event is viewed as a transient impediment–a cost of doing business, you might say. It’s not that they don’t recognize or acknowledge dark days; it’s that they believe that the sunshine is just a ways off. That’s why an optimist’s drive and spirit is never significantly depleted. While depression is enervating, optimism is energizing. The longer you remain optimistic–the longer you manage to shed feelings of self-doubt, self-recrimination and, most important, intimidation—the more strength you will have. No protein shakes needed.
How we learn to swap pessimistic worldviews for optimistic ones is among the most fervently pursued subjects of modern psychology. Professor Martin Seligman–director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life–is credited with spearheading this effort using insights gleaned from his work on cognitive-behavioral treatments for depression. The core component of Seligman’s program is an adjustment of a person’s explanatory style–the person’s preferred mode of accounting for events.
The most critical aspect of optimists’ explanatory style is that they reflexively attribute negative events to external, transient causes (“the poor economy preordained failure before I opened for business”), while attributing favorable outcomes to permanent, personal factors (“my exhaustive knowledge of the stock market is why I made so much money”).
Optimists also manage the perceived importance of events. If you offer a universal explanation for an undesirable outcome (“I always screw up in pressure-packed situations”) you almost cannot help end up depressed, if only as a result of being victimized by a self-fulfilling prophecy. Seligman’s suggestions: View negative outcomes as transient (“I know I’m in a batting slump that will end soon”) or construe your missteps as flukes (“I couldn’t mess up like that again if I tried to”).
Whatever way you choose to frame negative events, always protect your self-esteem. In a batting slump? Credit the opposing pitcher’s fastball (“I doubt that Ted Williams could have hit him today”) rather than blaming yourself (“I can’t hit the broad side of a barn”).
Practice that approach–and it does take practice–and you’ll relish future trips to the plate, not fear them.
Dr. Steven Berglas spent 25 years on the faculty of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. Today he coaches entrepreneurs, executives and other high-achievers. He can be reached at: [email protected].