The Up Side

By Renee Houston Zemanski

Recent studies by Harvard and Stanford Universities prove the old adage, “Attitude is more important than aptitude.” The research shows people who excel in their jobs do so because of a positive attitude. Interestingly, only 15 percent get ahead because of technical or specific skills. So, the big question is: Why do we spend so much time developing skills and so little developing a positive attitude?

The answer may lie in the way that we were raised.

In his book, Learned Optimism (Simon & Schuster, 1990), Dr. Martin Seligman, the guru of positive psychology, explains optimism and pessimism as “a habit of thought learned in childhood or adolescence.”

Dr. Andrew Shatté, co-founder of Adaptiv Learning Systems and a psychologist who trained at the University of Pennsylvania under Seligman, agrees. “The vast majority of your attitude comes from learning your parents’ belief systems.”

Does this mean that if your parents looked at the world as gloom and doom that you will, too? Possibly, but here’s the good news – you can learn to be positive.

“A ‘can-do’ positive attitude is made up of many different things,” says Shatté, who co-authored The Resilience Factor: Seven Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles (Broadway, 2003). “Optimism comes mostly from certain kinds of thinking styles developed over time. It also has to do with the way you look at the causes of a problem.

“Everything good and bad that happens to us has a cause and it’s usually more than just one,” explains Shatté. “Every cause can be categorized into ‘me or not-me,’ ‘always or not-always’ and ‘everything or not-everything’ thinking styles. For example, a problem is caused either by us or by something outside of ourselves. These thinking styles have an impact on our mood.”

Shatté says that no single thinking style is inherently good. “For instance, people who possess the ‘not-me, not-always, not-everything’ explanatory style have high esteem, but remain mediocre because ‘it’s not their fault,’” he says. “The style that does the best in sales, or in life for that matter, is a flexible style. Flexible people see all of the causes and then instinctively focus on the things they can control rather than on things beyond their control.”

To become more flexible, Shatté advises: “Focus on how you react to different situations. After every sales call do a quick analysis. Be mindful of your style as you analyze. The key is to figure out what kind of emotion you experience most often and if it gets in the way of your selling. Then use simple techniques to work through it, such as saying to yourself, ‘Well, that’s just my style talking right now. I feel angry, but that doesn’t mean that my rights have actually been violated.’“

Shatté and his colleagues specialize in resilience, which he calls a crucial part of successful selling. “Salespeople experience an enormous amount of rejection, so their ability to steer through rejection, stay goal-focused, and close the sale is all born of resilience,” he explains. “There are three factors of resilience that can build a ‘can-do’ attitude: the way you look at the cause of a problem; self-advocacy – your belief in yourself; and realistic optimism – accurate thinking, not just positive thinking.

Too Optimistic?

Over-the-top optimism is often associated with great success, but in fact, there is evidence to the contrary.

“Our research shows that over-optimists typically aren’t motivated to change the situation because all they can see is the good. In addition, they are often blindsided by adversity,” says Shatté. “On the other hand, pessimists fail to look for what they can do to control a situation.

Get Positive

Being aware of your attitude and accepting uncertainty in life can help you achieve a more optimistic and realistic viewpoint, says Christopher J. Anderson, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Temple University. He suggests reading books, taking tests or classes, or using a mentor to gain attitude awareness. He also recommends analyzing how you react in different situations and writing it down.

“Just writing in a journal about your feelings, your actions, and the outcome is a very powerful tool,” he says. “By studying the journal, you may notice patterns. You may also be surprised at how many times you tell yourself negative thoughts.”

However, Anderson says not to expect overnight miracles. “We are a culture that expects fast results,” he says. “Keep in mind the change will be gradual, but gradual change is also more long-lasting.”

“Most people get into trouble when they try to change all at once,” agrees Aubrey Daniels, founder and chairman of Aubrey Daniels International and a leading authority on behavioral science in the workplace. “Don’t ask too much of yourself or someone else too soon.

“Set what I refer to as many mini-goals,” Daniel explains. “Set goals where the probability of success is high. Start out by saying I will make one sales call by 8 a.m. instead of saying I’m going to make 10 sales calls today. When you’re successful, you’re reenergized; when you’re reenergized, you get more successful.”

There is Hope

Another word for an “I can” mentality is hope. “Hope is defined as being good at generating goals, creating effective pathways to reach those goals, and maintaining agency or motivation to achieve them,” says Diane Dreher, PhD, a professor at Santa Clara University and research associate in Santa Clara’s Spirituality and Health Institute.

First, set goals that you believe in, says Dreher, author of The Tao of Personal Leadership, (HarperCollins, 1996). “The goals need to be positive, specific, and measurable. Instead of saying to yourself, ‘I want to be successful,’ ask yourself, ‘What does it look like to be successful?’ Establish a clear trajectory of where you want to go.

“Second, use pathways or steps to achieve your goals,” says Dreher. “If you have at least three strong pathways and you run into a roadblock, you can take an alternate route.

“Third is agency or motivation,” says Dreher. “To increase your motivation, use positive self-talk and reflect on the last time you overcame an obstacle or succeeded in achieving a goal and focus on how you felt.”

Focus on Strengths

According to Seligman, every individual has the capacity to live a successful, meaningful life with a sense of purpose. He suggests identifying and honing your strengths. “Trying to fix weaknesses won’t help,” he writes; “rather, incorporating strengths such as humor, originality, and generosity into everyday interactions with people is a better way to achieve happiness.”

Dreher agrees. “Most people focus on their weaknesses, and on how they can improve on those,” she says. “Research shows that we become successful – as individuals and as organizations – if we focus on our strengths. If we work on our weaknesses, we can achieve competence, but if we work on our strengths, we can achieve excellence.”

Online Testing

Dr. Martin Seligman offers a whole host of personality tests at his Website, and in his books, Authentic Happiness (The Free Press, 2002) and Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Simon and Schuster, 1998).

Dr. Andrew Shatté offers testing at the Adaptiv Website, He coauthored, with Karen Reivich, The Resilience Factor: Seven Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles (Broadway, 2003).