Positive Explanatory Style
A recent election didn't turn out the way
I wanted, and it forced me to reexamine and
refocus my optimism. If I didn't do this,
I risked becoming negative, and in my business,
if you're negative, you might as well close
up shop. Besides, no one wants to live in
a negative world.
Entrepreneurs live on optimism. Without a
belief system based on positive events, it
would be very difficult to take on financial
risk and overcome obstacles, two things almost
all entrepreneurs do. I've always seen my
optimism as one of my biggest strengths, and
somewhat ironically, it was borne out of my
most glaring weakness, my disability.
I was born with a normal body. Not until
I was nearly eight years old did I start to
experience a disability. From that point on,
I was forced to account for my life's fate.
Simple activities like running on the playground
gradually became more difficult and ultimately
impossible for me to do. From my childhood
through my teen years, I experienced the loss
of physical ability that most people experience
from their 60s or 70s onward. Older adults
have the maturity to accept that their bodies
aren't as capable as they were for the previous
60 years, and their contemporaries are experiencing
the same thing, so they don't feel alone.
A young kid, like I was, has neither the context
nor the maturity to cope with these changes.
I was largely left to make sense of it on
I had to reconcile the disparity between
what I felt I deserved and what fate had handed
As my physical abilities deteriorated, I
had to be mindful not to let my emotional
abilities wane as well. If I focused on what
I was no longer able to do, I would quickly
grow bitter and develop a personality that
wasn't very attractive. Fortunately, I had
a support system in my family and friends
that propped me up when I was feeling down.
They also held me accountable to performing
to my potential, not letting me make excuses
for myself. To this day, friends that I've
known for most of my life, forgetting about
my disability, will invite me to go skiing
or hiking. It's that sort of nearly unbridled
expectation that allowed me to develop a strong
sense of optimism.
And that optimism is often tested. A couple
of years ago, I awoke early on a Saturday
morning excited to attend my son's basketball
tournament. Unfortunately, a mixture of sleet
and ice had fallen overnight, and it still
covered the sidewalks. Instead of watching
Patrick and his team win the tournament that
morning, I sat alone and read the newspaper.
Little disappointments like that are part
of my life - a part that I can't control.
There is nothing that I can do about a slick
sidewalk and wobbly legs that virtually ensure
a nasty fall if I try to walk on one. What
I can control is my reaction to this reality.
Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism:
How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, believes
that the key to optimism is a positive explanatory
style. If people can approach life's challenges
as external, transient events, Seligman believes
that their outlook will be much more positive.
In other words, the key to happiness is externalizing
as much frustration as possible and looking
at those frustrations as temporary.
In the case of my missed basketball game,
I look at the slippery conditions as a temporary
impediment that I can't control, and I resist
the temptation of self-pity for a handicap
that presents challenges even on secure surfaces.
If I internalize these struggles and see them
as permanent, my attitude quickly changes
for the worse. Instead of saying, "why
does it always have to be difficult to get
around to the events I want to attend. I wish
that I didn't have this handicap. It's forever
going to hold me back from doing the things
I want to do," I take deeper overview
- I'm frustrated now, but the snow and ice
won't be around forever, and I'll be able
to see more of my kids' sports if I don't
hurt myself by taking a fall today.
Ceding control over things that are uncontrollable
is essential to being optimistic. As much
as we want to exert our will on the world,
much of what happens around us is beyond our
As much as I wished otherwise, I couldn't
control the results of the recent election.
What I can control is my reaction. Though
the resulting business environment might not
be ideal, it is external and transient. My
resolve, tenacity and skills are internal
and permanent. That's where I choose to focus,
and I hope the same for you.
-- Mitch Arnold