Learned Optimism

Are you a pessimist? You might be surprised. Choosing to be an optimist, according to author Randy Ingermanson, can change your writing life.

Read his article below, reprinted with permission. It’s long–but worth it!

(By the way, I whole-heartedly endorse this book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life.)

What’s Holding You Back?

I recently discovered something about myself that surprised me. Something that makes me take a lot longer to get things done than I should. Something that sometimes keeps me from finishing tasks. Something that occasionally even keeps me from trying in the first place.

I’m a pessimist.

This came as quite a surprise. After all, I’m not nearly as pessimistic as “Joe,” a guy I used to work with. Every time I suggested a new idea to “Joe,” the first thing he’d say was, “Now be careful! There’s a lot of things you haven’t thought about yet.” Then he’d shoot the idea down with rocket-powered grenades.

After a while, I learned not to run ideas past “Joe” because apparently, all my ideas were bad.

I haven’t seen “Joe” in years, and I’m pretty sure I’m not as pessimistic as he is. But somewhere along the way, I definitely went over to the Dark Side. I became more like him than I ever imagined possible.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that pessimism is not forever. You can quit being a pessimist and start being an optimist.

But should you? Aren’t those pesky pessimists more in touch with reality than those annoying optimists?

Yes and no.

Yes, pessimists generally do have a better grasp of the hard realities of the situation. “Life sucks” and all that. You can prove in the lab that pessimists are better at recognizing reality.

But no, no, no, because in very real ways, you make your own reality. We all know about self-fulfilling prophecies. Those work both ways. Optimists are happier, healthier, and get more done. Because they expect to. Pessimists are less happy, less healthy, and get less done. Because they expect to. Again, you can measure that difference in the lab.

If you’re a pessimist and you want to know what’s holding you back in life, just go look in a mirror.

It’s you. But you already knew that, and you were already down on yourself, and now you’re mad at me for blaming you, but realistically, you secretly believe it’s your own darned fault, so you’re really just mad at me for telling you what you already knew.

Sorry about that. I feel your pain. Remember, I’m a pessimist too, and I’m probably a bigger one than you are.

I’m a pessimist, but I’m going to change. Which is actually an optimistic thing to say, and it means the cure is already working.

What is pessimism? And what is optimism? And how do you know which you are?

I’m not the expert on this. Martin Seligman is the expert, and he has been for a long time. Recently, somebody recommended Seligman’s book to me. The title is LEARNED OPTIMISM.

I grabbed a copy off Amazon and began reading. Seligman hooked me right away with his account of how he and a number of other researchers broke the stranglehold on psychology that had been held for decades by the behaviorists.

Behaviorists taught that people were created by their environment. To change a person, you had to condition him to a new behavior. A person couldn’t change himself merely by thinking differently, because thinking didn’t matter. Only conditioning mattered.

What Seligman and others showed was that the behaviorists were wrong. The way you think matters. Thinking optimistically, you could change things for the better. Thinking pessimistically, you could change things for the worse–or at best just wallow in the “life sucks” mud.

There’s a test you can take in LEARNED OPTIMISM that helps you figure out your particular style of thinking. There are three particular aspects to measure:

* Permanence — if things are good (or bad), do you expect them to stay like that for a long time?
* Pervasiveness — if one thing is good (or bad), do you expect everything else to be like that?
* Personalization — if things are good (or bad), who gets the credit (or blame) — you or somebody else?

Optimists think that good things will continue on but that bad things will go away soon. Likewise, they think that good things are pervasive whereas bad things are merely aberrations from the norm. When good things happen, optimists are willing to take a fair share of the credit; when bad things happen, they’re willing to let others take a fair share of the blame.

Pessimists are the opposite on all of these.

I took the test and discovered that I’m somewhat pessimistic in two of these aspects and strongly pessimistic in the other.

That’s not good. But (having now read the book) it’s not permanent. I can change if I want to. Furthermore, that pessimism is in my head, it’s not a pervasive feature of the universe. Most importantly, my pessimism isn’t entirely my fault, because I can see now who taught it to me.

The above paragraph is a model of how to change from pessimism to optimism. Both optimism and pessimism are driven by your beliefs, which are driven by what you tell yourself.

When you change your self-talk, you change your beliefs. When you change your beliefs, you change your behavior. When you change your behavior, you change your life. Chapters 12, 13, and 14 of LEARNED OPTIMISM teach you the techniques you need to change your self-talk.

Let’s be clear on one thing. Optimism is not about the alleged “power of positive thinking,” not about making those wretchedly gooey self-affirmations, and not about telling lies to yourself.

Optimism is about looking for alternative plausible explanations that might lead to improving your life.

Pessimism is about looking for alternative plausible explanations that might lead to disimproving your life.

Which of those is likely to make you happier, healthier, and more productive? Bringing this home to the topic of fiction writing, which of those is likely to help you get your novel written, get it read by an agent, and get it published?

Research shows that optimism is an invaluable tool in dealing with criticism and rejection. If you’ve ever shut down for three days after a tough critique, or stopped sending out query letters for three months after getting a rejection from that perfect agent, then you can see the value of learning optimism.

Optimism will keep you going through the hard times as a writer. And you are going to have hard times. That will never change. What can change is how you respond to those hard times.

There is no way I can explain in 500 words exactly how it all works. The best I can do is to point you to Martin Seligman’s book and tell you that I think it’s gold. I expect this book is going to revolutionize my life in the next year. I hope it changes yours too.


Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 21,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/>http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
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4 Responses to Learned Optimism

  1. Vijaya says:

    Great article from Randy. I’m the perennially annoying optimist … I was so bad that when my mother disciplined me, I’d say, “I could be much worse.” Which was true. Grin. I gave her a lot of white hair (so she said). God rest her soul. I think optimism boils down to hope.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Kristi. I’m afraid I’m a pessimist. It’s so hard to change that thinking when it’s my default mode, but I keep working at it. :)

    I subscribed to your posts some time ago, but I’m not getting them in my email. I just tried signing up again, but it says I’m already subscribed.

    • kwpadmin says:

      I was shocked myself when I took the test in the book and came out so pessimistic. I thought that many of my attitudes were just being responsible–like when something went wrong, assuming it was probably my own fault and I needed to change something. Or I took a personal rejection that hurt and let it “spread” to other rejections to the point that I didn’t want to submit any work anymore. Now when something goes wrong, I try to just take responsibility for my own part and place responsibility on others when appropriate.

      The “subscribe” thing that got you the free ebook put you on a mailing list. Since I could never get the blog/email thing to work, I send out a monthly newsletter that contains all the links to the blogs for that month. Hopefully you got that letter early in January.

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