Tuesday morning at 7:19 AM, I was sitting in my hotel room near George Washington University in Washington DC, having just learned that my speaking engagement scheduled for that day had been canceled due to the predicted mid-morning start of a winter storm. On the screen of my laptop was information telling me a direct flight to Nashville would leave Reagan International at 8:30 AM. By 8:15, I was seated on that flight texting my DC colleagues that I was on my way home. The story of what went on in my head during those 56 minutes exemplifies learned optimism and captures both its power and its difficulty.
Appropriately, I had been scheduled to speak to the first year law school class at Georgetown about resilience just before their first semester grades came out. In fact, I was to teach them one of the core skills of learned optimism: the ability to separate what happens in the world from one’s thoughts about those events and the emotions and reactions that are driven by those thoughts. Note the italics. This skill allows one to sort through the thoughts, emotions, and reactions arising from any event and make sure that the thinking and emotion/reaction engaged in as result of the event are working for one’s benefit. It involves careful consideration of whether one’s thinking is both factually accurate and broad enough to account for a reasonable range of possibilities. That last word is important – possibilities.
(Hints on teaching this skill in this week’s newsletter.)
Acacia Parks, a leading researcher of positive psychology interventions, noted in an interview that the message the public often hears about optimism is that one should simply expect everything to work out. She goes on to note:
“What I try to explain to people is that optimism is much more about entertaining the possibility that things could work out. So, if you’re a pessimist you think that things are not going to work out, and then you don’t even bother, so of course it doesn’t work out because you didn’t try. But optimism is just keeping open the idea that it could work and trying, as if it will work, so that you maximize your chances of it working. That’s the reason that optimists are more successful. It’s not magic, it’s effort, and your level of effort depends on what you expect.”
In that moment, as I sat staring at my laptop screen, two thoughts flashed through my mind. “I might make it” was immediately attacked by “No way!” But, while they were still at war, I started moving. Shower. Dress. Pack. Check out. Cab to the airport. See the line at self-check-in and turn to the empty first-class desk (even though I was flying coach) and ask for help. Hear ticket agent say that seats are available if she can get my booking changed before the system “locks her out.” And, finally, the happy words, “You’re booked; head straight to the gate,” as she hands me my boarding pass. Cruise through security (gratitude for TSA Pre-Check!), stride to the gate, and board! (And, to top it all off, I ended up with a row to myself!) Pull out my phone to text my colleagues and see the time – 8:15. Fifty-six minutes from pajamas to plane seat.
Taking Reasonable Risks
Readers with more familiarity with explanatory style may wonder about this short-hand of my thoughts, since explanatory style deals with our thinking about why something happens (causal explanations). In fact, along-with the “no way” thought came such causal explanations, including, “I’m not careful or proactive enough.” (Interestingly enough, I noticed in this experience that I often tend to visualize how I think somebody else would have done it better.) By blaming the situation on my lack of care, I was seeing a broad-acting and long-lasting cause: I would lack care in other situations and, as a personal quality, it would continue into the future, likely forever. This type of causal explanation for an adverse event, broad in scope and long-lasting in duration, meant that I had little control over getting into adverse situation. The “negative” emotions accompanying those thoughts were shame and embarrassment, and these tended to narrow my thinking (see Chapter 6 in SMART Strengths) so that all I saw were the reasons why I could not make it and tended to ignore or minimize (confirmation bias) the facts that suggested I could, such as that I had little to pack, was close to the airport, traffic would be lighter with things canceled, I was flying carry-on, etc. In the grip of those emotions, I also tended to magnify the negative risks of trying, “I’ll get stuck in airport and not be able to get back to the hotel.” Plus I started to catastrophize – “I’ll waste two days in a hotel room while this storm passes” instead of, “Most likely, I’ll have a hotel room with food spots nearby and internet access – I can get a lot done.”
So, I acted like an optimist. But, inside my head, the pessimistic voice that I first started to recognize over a decade ago was still talking even as I started to act. “You can’t make it. You’re just wasting time. The best you can do is the flight after this, and it goes through Philly and you’ll get stuck there. You should just stay here, change your flight to tomorrow, and make the best of it.” I had to counter and ignore those thoughts until the momentum of my actions was enough to carry through. Had I listened to that voice for just a moment – paused to dither and debate – I wouldn’t have made it. But, I fought it and kept moving.
This on-going need to watch and challenge my thinking is why I describe myself as a “recovering pessimist.” I am not sure if I was a pessimistic thinker when I was in high school and college (law school may change some folks), but I am sure that I do not now know what it would be like to be a more naturally optimistic thinker. Even now, the little voice has not shut up. “You’re not really an optimist; you’re just faking it,” and “A real optimist wouldn’t have to work so hard at it,” are two of its favorite lines. To which, my learned optimism replies, “Maybe so, but I’m living more like I want, and I intend to keep at it.”
This tendency of the pessimistic voice to keep talking (though it does lessen over time) is why helping others learn how to practice learned optimism is so hard. It’s a skill, and like any skill, it takes work. Just helping people gain insight isn’t enough. They must have an opportunity to practice, and often they’re going to need support in continuing to focus and practice until the skill becomes internalized. In the SMART Strengths model, they not only need to Spot pessimistic thinking, they need to be able to Manage their responses and Advocate for a more optimistic approach. The “R” and the “T” in SMART Strengths, “Relating” and “Training” can also help us master this skill.
Other People Matter
My progress as a recovering pessimist did not come in isolation. The truth is that others have made a difference. First, my wife and children are optimistic and have supported my efforts. A year of study in the MAPP program at the University of Pennsylvania with amazing and encouraging classmates made a real difference. And teaching the skills to others – the T in SMART – has made a difference; I have learned a lot about my own thinking as I have taught and coached the skill to others. I have also benefitted from learning from one of the real masters in the field of training resilience, Dr. Karen Reivich.
It is hard to change patterns of thinking that have been with us for most of our lives, and the influence of those around us matters greatly. That is why school systems that want to impact achievement through applied positive psychology need to think in terms of embedding expertise in those skills – and in how to train them – throughout individual schools and the system as a whole. Otherwise, the voices of the most pessimistic of those around us tend to drag us back down. And, in fact, if we have acquired a pessimistic group of friends and colleagues (likely, optimistic thinkers generally avoid pessimistic thinkers), then those folks may argue with us on occasion that we should continue to see the world their way rather than make the changes in thinking-patterns that would let us be more optimistic and in control.
Ultimately, Learned Optimism (Chpater 7 in SMART Strengths), like its close cousins Hope Theory and Growth Mindsets (Chapter 8), is about control. Although the thought, “There’s nothing I can do,” can be comforting when it gets us off the hook of personal effort, it is a loser’s thought – the thought of a helpless victim. It may relieve us of effort, but it eliminates the possibility of success. The other frequent pessimistic thought, “That’s too much work,” keeps pessimistic thinkers from putting forth the effort even when the likelihood of success is much greater than for a sub-one-hour pajamas to plane seat dash. Optimists, whether learned or natural, roll the dice of effort and time repeatedly and work to increase their resources and skills to increase their winning percentage. Overtime, their slightly more frequent wins mount up, and they move forward in life. They notice and remember each win, each success, and count it as evidence that they can achieve their goals through learning and practice, persistence and effort. Those who learn to think helplessly, however, take each setback (and each success by someone else) as evidence that the universe is stacked against them and that they just can’t win.
Adversity in Schools
Both students and educators today face significant and seemingly-uncontrollable adversities. Students from poorer backgrounds face the challenges of poverty, and often a lack of role models, broken homes, and alcohol and drugs. Students from families that are more well-off often face dauntingly high standards for “success”, absentee or inattentive parents, broken homes, and alcohol and drugs. Educators face demands to accomplish what no society has ever done (college for all) with no clear model for how that is accomplished and increasing doubts that it is a financially reasonable undertaking even for some who achieve grades and scores that permit them to try. Educators are not being asked to “put a man on the moon by the end of this decade,” but rather to develop faster-than-light travel by the end of the school year. It is easy to see where these sorts of pressures, for students and for educators, can make it hard to develop or even sustain reasonably optimistic thinking.
And yet, we know it can be done. We know that we can help students, teachers, leaders and others developed learned optimism, hope, and growth mindsets. We can develop a sufficiently positive emotional balance. We can help each other discover, deploy, and develop our strengths, both of character and of performance. We can improve our relationship skills and learn to set goals in a way that enables actions, encourages persistence through difficulties, and pulls us into the future. We know that these things will be far more important for developing close, satisfying relationships and fulfilling jobs than academic achievement, and that they will enable maximum academic achievement as well. All we need is leadership to devote resources and time to developing within our school systems the capacity to teach, practice, support and sustain the mental, emotional, behavioral, and relational skills that we know are essential to human success. This will not only help to maximize their academic success, but success in life, also.
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