Big Picture: Channeling Your Inner Optimist



In April, I wrote that the majority of us focus on fixing our weaknesses vs trying to expand our strengths.1 I then urged for a more balanced focus on these weaknesses and strengths, as well as the positive and negative experiences in your life. Be a neutral observer and a student, I implored. And attempt to learn from every experience, be it good or bad.

Let’s be real. When it comes to setbacks, it can be really difficult to maintain a cold, detached attitude. After all, you may be saying to yourself, “I screwed up and I feel lousy about it.” Experience that feeling enough and you’ll begin to feel helpless, if not downright depressed. In sales, rejection comes with the territory. And if you don’t learn how to cope with such dismissals, it will corrode your confidence and, ultimately, your performance.

We know that optimistic people are quick to bounce back from difficulties. What if you don’t think of yourself as an optimist? What if the proverbial glass is never half full for you? Fortunately, there are answers.

First, let’s start with your immediate reaction to something that doesn’t go well. It’s ok to feel sad, angry or hurt. You’re human after all. Even resilient people experience these feelings when there’s a setback. Being resilient is not the same as being positive 100% of the time. The experts counsel acceptance as being the healthiest path. Brad Waters, MSW, a coach and social worker who writes a column for Psychology Today, acknowledges,2 “Pain is painful, stress is stressful, and healing takes time … Yet resilient people understand that stress/pain is a part of living that ebbs and flows.”

What a person does next with these negative feelings is what separates those who bounce back from adversity vs those who let it take over. Martin Seligman, PhD, a University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, psychology professor who is widely considered the founding father of the positive psychology movement, talks about something he calls “explanatory style,” which is simply how someone explains why events happened. According to Seligman, negative thinkers tend to fixate on the three P’s: personalization, pervasiveness, and permanence.

Some of Seligman’s earliest research on explanatory style was with, interestingly, salespeople. In the mid-1980s, the CEO of insurance giant MetLife approached Seligman with an employee crisis. You see, MetLife was hiring and training 5,000 new sales consultants a year, only to have half quit within the first year on the job. And a jaw-dropping 80% headed for the exits within four years.

Seligman tracked 15,000 new MetLife consultants who had taken two tests: the company’s regular screening exam and another that measured job applicants’ levels of optimism. Among the new hires was a group who flunked the screening test but who were rated “super-optimists” by their performance on Seligman’s exam. It was these super-optimists who ended up with the best job performance of all salesperson groups. To this day, MetLife does not hire candidates who score in the lowest 25% on such optimism screenings. In 1995, Seligman looked to other industries to explore the relationship between salespersons’ optimism scores and their job performance. The results across all studies indicated that optimists outsold pessimists by 20% to 40%.

optimist quote

In an interview in Selling Power magazine, Seligman said, “I think that those salespeople who have adopted an optimistic style for dealing with negative events will make the next call faster, they are going to be more creative on the next call and they are going to sell more”3 In summary, people with an “optimistic style” are able to explain negative events as resulting from external factors, not just mistakes they made. And they don’t say, “Well, failure is the way it’s always going to be.” Rather, they are able to compartmentalize the negative event vs letting it significantly impact their lives.

Fortunately, an optimistic explanatory style can be learned.4 You can also take optimism courses designed for salespeople or visit a cognitive psychotherapist who will teach you to challenge your self-defeating explanations of events.

Want some quick tips? Try these.

  • Remind yourself that many rejections are temporary. Just because it was the right time for you to make a sale doesn’t it mean it was the right time for your customer to buy.
  • Try not to personalize defeats. There are usually many, many other factors influencing a customer’s decision besides your performance.
  • View setbacks as challenges to be solved rather than threats.

But wait! Aren’t some negative events actually your fault or are significant enough that anyone would expect them to put a significant damper on your life? Absolutely! The key is distinguishing between the real moun tains vs the ones we make out of molehills.



  1. Dubin J. Learn From Your Highs and Lows. Mentor. 2017;8(4):8–9.
  2. Waters B. Psychology Today. 10 traits of emotionally resilient people. Available at: Accessed August 1, 2017.
  3. Selling Power. Dr. Martin Seligman. Available at: ?a=8762/dr-martin-seligman&page=2. Accessed August 1, 2017.
  4. Seligman M. Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York, NewYork: Vintage Books; 2006.


From MENTOR. September 2017;8(9):10-11.

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