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 my own.

I had to reconcile the disparity between what I felt I deserved and what fate had handed me.

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 control.

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