Why Being an Optimist Will Get You Ahead in Your Career
April 06, 2012
Success Tweet: Be an optimist. Believe things will turn out well. When they don’t, don’t sulk. Learn what you can, use it next time. There are two important pieces of career advice about optimism and life and career success in this tweet. First, optimists believe things will turn out well. Second, optimists see failure and defeat as temporary. They treat them as learning opportunities. Have you seen the movie Remember the Titans? It’s a sports movie about an improbable situation based on a true story. Denzel Washington stars as the coach of the T. C. Williams High School Titans. Williams was a newly integrated high school in Alexandria Virginia in 1971. Denzel’s character, Coach Herman Boone was a black man chosen to be the head coach over a very popular coach who had been the head coach at the high school prior to it being integrated. The team had a lot of good athletes. They were undefeated as they entered the State Championship game. Things didn’t go well in the first half. In the locker room at half time, Denzel makes a speech in which he congratulated the team on coming so far in such a short period of time. He tells them that win or lose he is proud of them. It seems as if he has given up. It sounds like a speech losing coaches give to teams after a game – not at half time. One of the players speaks up. He challenges the coach. He says something like, “We were perfect when this game started. We’re still perfect until it’s over. I, for one, want to finish this game like we started it – perfect.” This impassioned speech rallies the team, and they win the game. It’s a feel good movie about a group of young men who learned how to pull together regardless of their differences. It also makes the first point about optimists. Even when the coach seemed ready to give up, one player wouldn’t. He was an optimist. He believed they would win. His optimism was contagious. The team rallied and won. I don’t know if things went down exactly that way in that locker room, but that scene reinforces the power of believing things will turn out well. If you don’t believe you can win, if you don’t believe you can create a successful life and career, you won’t. If you do believe, if you’re an optimist, you’re on the right path to winning and life and career success. But believing is not enough. It will set you up for success, but you will still find times when you fail. That’s where the second piece of career advice in Tweet 44 comes in. Don’t sulk when you fail or lose. Treat every failure and loss as a learning experience. Use failures and losses as a stepping stone to creating the life and career success you want and deserve. I was frustrated early in my career. I saw other people getting promotions for which I thought I was better qualified. My first job in business was in the training department of a large Oil Company. I worked hard, did a good job – and kept getting passed over for promotion. The reasons were vague – “you’ve only been here a little while,” “the hiring manager thought the other person was a better fit,” “you need to polish up some of those rough edges.” So I found another job; this time with a Chemical Company. I worked hard, did a good job, got good performance reviews – and no promotions. I was frustrated. In my heart of hearts, I knew I was as good or better than people who were moving ahead while I was standing still. I decided that maybe more school would be the answer. I quit my job, and enrolled in a PhD program in Adult Education and Organizational Behavior at Harvard. Once I got there, I realized that the same thing happens in academia as happens in business. The hardest workers and best performers don’t always get rewarded and promoted. I decided that I had an opportunity to use my situation -- and my frustration -- as a lab. I didn’t sulk. I chose to learn from my frustrations and failures. After all, I was at Harvard. I was surrounded by high performers – people who had achieved a lot at an early age, and seemed destined to achieve even more. I decided that maybe I should pay some attention to these folks. I got one of those marble covered notebooks and made a list of all the people I admired at Harvard. Then I made a list of all the people in the companies where I had worked who got the promotions I didn’t. I made another list of the people I knew who I considered to be positive role models. I didn’t stop there. I started reading biographies of successful people. I created a page for each person. I wrote down the characteristics that I observed in these people. When I was finished, I had a notebook full of the characteristics I observed in successful people. It was a long list. So I did kind of a human regression analysis on it. I started looking for patterns and groups of behaviors. When it was all said and done, I found four distinct characteristics that the successful people I had studied had in common. They all...
- Had a clearly defined purpose and direction for their lives.
- Were committed to succeeding. They faced obstacles and overcame them.
- Were self confident. They knew they were going to succeed and continue to succeed as they went through life.
- Shared some basic competencies. They knew how present themselves in a favorable light. Other people were attracted to them and wanted to be around them. They were high performers. They were great communicators. They were good at building relationships.