Your Explanatory Style Explains Your Success: The Choice is Yours

Posted by on August 2, 2011 in Blog Posts | 0 comments

The assumption is that our workplaces, our schools and our winning sports teams operate on the conventional belief that success results from a combination of talent and desire.  When failure occurs, it is because either talent or desire is missing.  What we are discovering is that there is another important factor that influences our behavior.  You can get more of what you want from life by turning to a power that is available to everyone—-the power of optimism. Martin SeligmanPerpetual optimism is a force multiplier. Colin Powell

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. Winston Churchill

Why are some people overwhelmed and defeated by their problems while others are challenged and motivated by the same situations?  According to Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, there are several factors that influence our outlook on life.  Two of the factors that impact our view of the world are our explanatory style and our sense of learned helplessness.

Our view of the world is learned through all of our experiences, how others respond to us, through interpretation of events, and through our self-talk.  This thinking he calls explanatory style.

Your Success

What’s your view?

Explanatory style is the manner in which we habitually explain to ourselves why events happen.  It is the great modulator of what Seligman calls learned helplessness.  Learned helplessness is the giving-up reaction, the quitting response that follows from the belief that whatever you do doesn’t matter.  An optimistic explanatory style stops helplessness, a pessimistic explanatory style spreads helplessness.

There are three elements in our explanatory style, our thinking style, that differentiate pessimists from optimists.  It all has to do with interpreting an event as 1) Permanent or Temporary, 2) Pervasive or Specific and 3) whether it is Personal or Other.

Take an example, when bad things happen the pessimists automatically think the cause is:

Permanent: It is always going to be.  “I’ll never learn to hit the ball.”

Pervasive: It’s going to affect everything.  “I can’t hit, I’ll never learn to play any sport.”

Personal: It’s my fault.  “I don’t have the mental or physical skills to play baseball.”

By contrast optimists interpret their set backs very differently.

Temporary: It is just one instance.  “I struck out but I’ll get a hit the next time up.”

Specific: The problem was the bat.  “Next time I’ll choke-up on the bat, then I’ll hit it”

Other: The umpire made an error.  “The pitch was off the plate, but he called me out.”

Psychologists studying the performance of college students, found that over and above their talent-test scores, pessimists drop below their “potential” and optimists exceed it.  The notion of potential, without the notion of optimism, has very little meaning.

In the mid-1980’s, Martin Seligman studied the explanatory style of major league baseball players and managers in the National League.  Analysis of over 15,000 pages of public utterances reported in home town newspapers of individual team members and managers found that “optimistic teams” did better than their previous year win-loss records would suggest, and that “pessimistic teams” did worse.

During the same period, a study of the explanatory responses of teams in the National Basketball Association came up with the same conclusions.  There appears to be an individual, as well as a team explanatory style, that is meaningful and measurable.  Explanatory style predicts how teams will do above and beyond how “good” a team is.  Based on potential, success on the playing field is predicted by optimism.  Failure on the playing field is predicted by pessimism.

Not only do optimists do better on the job, in school, and sports activities, but it is suggested that they also enjoy better health, tend to live longer, and they have smoother, less rocky, relationships.

However, Seligman suggests that there are times when having a pessimistic view is beneficial.  The guideline is when the cost of failure in a particular situation is high, optimism is the wrong strategy.  The party-goer deciding whether to drive home after drinking or the pilot in the cockpit deciding whether to de-ice the plane one more time should not use optimism.  In both these instances the cost of failure is high.  Optimism is not the answer!

Becoming an optimist consists not of learning to be more selfish or self-assertive, but simply of learning a set of skills about how to talk to yourself when you suffer a personal defeat.  You can learn to speak to yourself about your set backs from a more encouraging viewpoint.

Habits of thinking need not be forever.  It is up to you to decide which style of thinking you want to dominate your outlook.  You decide the results you want.

The choice is yours!

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