Thoughts and ideas from The Physician Executive
Optimism for Physician Leaders: Why It Matters So Much
May 29, 2019 at 12:00 AM
by The Physician Executive
optimistic physician leader

“Success is measured by your ability to maintain enthusiasm between failures.” – Sir Winston Churchill

Mahatma Gandhi, Norman Cousins, Helen Keller, Christopher Reeves, Thomas Edison, and Mozart are just a few names I think of when I write about optimism and success.

Most of us know that to be successful, you must have two things:

1. talent or aptitude
2. motivation.

However, more recent research shows that there’s a third very important element:

3. an optimistic attitude, particularly in the face of adversity.

In the research, high scores for optimism predict excellence in everything from sports to health, elections, and sales! When Metropolitan Life used an assessment of optimistic attitude to select and hire salespeople, they saved themselves millions of dollars in personnel selection. Those highest on the optimism scale outsold others in their first year by 27 percent.

When Matt Biondi was in training for the Seoul Olympics in 1988, his coach would repeatedly tell him his times were slower than they actually were. Because Biondi scored high on tests for optimism, his coach knew that this discouraging news would only motivate him to swim faster. He ended up winning five gold medals in his last five events.

Guess what – optimists are also more resistant to infectious illness and are better at fending off chronic diseases of middle age. In one study of 96 men who had their first heart attack in 1980, 15 of the 16 most pessimistic men died of a second heart attack within eight years, but only five of the 16 most optimistic men died.

Dr. Martin Seligman, a researcher and psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of “Learned Optimism” and “Authentic Happiness”. He has spent a lifetime studying why some people are more resilient than others. He developed an Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) which measures optimism and pessimism. In one study of school children over several years, those scoring highest for pessimism were most likely later to suffer depression.

He has also shown that optimists not only do better educationally, and in their careers, they also enjoy superior health and longevity. Data from cancer patients show a definite association between pessimism and mortality for those under 60.

The good news is that optimism can be learned and cultivated.

Very few of us were lucky enough to have been raised with an attitude of optimism. Research shows that optimism is learned in childhood from maternal caretakers.

Pessimists, passive optimists and dynamic optimists all selectively focus their attention.

The pessimist focuses on problems, pains, and pitfalls. The passive optimist sees only what is encouraging and enjoyable, but blinds him- or herself to potential obstacles, which leads to missed opportunities or limited success.

And the dynamic optimist dwells on what is constructive and enjoyable while de-emphasizing pain, difficulty and frustration. Such a person can look at a frustrating event, fully accept its reality, and choose to interpret the event in a way that leads to action, growth and mastery. They recognize dangers but have a wider vision open to solutions, possibilities and assisting forces.

Optimists and Pessimists As Leaders

A successful organization has a diverse set of personalities serving different roles. Optimists are good as researchers, developers and marketers. Their optimism helps them in their roles as visionaries. But if your organization were to consist of only optimists, it would be a disaster.

There is a place for a certain type of “pessimism” – those people who have an accurate knowledge of present realities. They must make sure reality holds your optimistic excesses in check. Your attorney, financial planner, business advisor and CPA all need an accurate sense of what your business is planning to accomplish, to be able to assess possible risks. Their role is provide accuracy, prudence and caution to any expansive thinking that may be losing touch with reality.

What do you do when you hit that brick wall?

Think about those times when you are confronting change or a leadership challenge at work and you feel blocked and discouraged – you’ve run up against a brick wall. What to do when you hit that wall?

· Optimists persevere. In the face of routine setbacks they persist. They keep going, looking for that one thought that will free them up to move on. Even in the face of major failure, optimists persevere.

· Optimism can help every time you face new challenges. It can make the difference between getting the job done well or poorly – or not at all. Even in routine tasks, such as paper work or writing, an optimistic attitude can make the difference.

· Procrastination is the result of not having optimism as a mindset to start and finish a task. Some people call putting off work just laziness. But at the root of the problem is the internal dialog that goes on in the mind of the person facing an unpleasant, scary or boring task. A pessimist thinks all kinds of negative thoughts when facing such tasks. The optimist tends to focus on positive thoughts that actually encourage and energize.

We all have our own point of discouragement, our own wall. What you do when you hit this wall can mean the difference between helplessness, guilt, and a sense of failure, and success and feelings of accomplishment.

Failure often does not stem from laziness, nor from lack of talent or lack of imagination. It’s often simply ignorance of some very important tools not commonly taught at medical school or in residencies.

The good news is….

The basic tools of optimism can be learned.

If you are working with a physician leadership coach, you can take the opportunity to work on developing the skills of optimism.

Here are three important tools for learning to cultivate an optimistic attitude.

1. Become aware of your attitude: look at how you selectively focus on events.
2. Examine your internal dialogue then change what you tell yourself.
3. Do something pleasurable to distract yourself from bad events.

1. Notice what you focus on when a bad event happens to you.
Are you seeing only one side of the situation? Are there learning opportunities you can focus on, rather than mistakes? How would an extreme optimist look at this situation? How else could you view this? Are you looking at this as permanent or temporary? Are you looking at this as global or specific to this one event only? Do you assign blame personally or to some external person or thing?

2. Talk to yourself with kindness.
If something goes wrong, pessimists tend to have hopeless thoughts. They tell themselves, “I’ll never get it right,” or, “There I go again, I always screw up.” Even worse, they label themselves with a global declaration of negativity: “I’m a stupid fool.”
The goal here is to speak to yourself with kindness and compassion. You might say something like this: “Ouch! That didn’t go very well today, but I can learn from this. Some of what I did can be corrected. I can do better tomorrow.” Reframe your self-talk by saying something like, “I know I feel like a stupid fool, but I’m not. I’m a lot better than I was when I first started this job. I’m learning quite quickly and I’m not going to get everything perfect all of the time.”

3. Distract yourself with pleasurable activities.
Another technique for overcoming pessimism is to distract yourself from negative thinking. It’s important not to ruminate about bad events that happen to you – at least not immediately. Studies show that if you think about problems in a negative frame of mind, you actually come up with fewer solutions.
By participating in activities that you find pleasurable, thereby boosting your mood and self-esteem, you can break the pessimistic cycle. So, if you get a rude letter from an unhappy client or patient, don’t ruminate and obsess about it. Engage in a pleasant activity to free your mind and to think more optimistically and creatively later on.

How do you rate yourself on your explanatory style?

Finally, explanatory style is the way that you explain events to yourself – both good and bad. You “explain” to yourself that what has happened is either permanent or temporary, pervasive and global, or specific (limited to just this one event), or personal (you’re responsible) or external (somebody else gets the credit or blame.) This tool is one way to measure your optimistic or pessimistic attitude.

By learning techniques to adjust your explanatory style to be less judgmental and more compassionate and realistic, you will be well on your way to seeing the glass half full!

Take this short quiz to better understand your explanatory style:

When something good happens to me, I tell myself that:
1. This kind of thing always happens
2. These things happen sometimes
3. This never happens
1. This event happened because of something I’ve done
2. This happened because of me, but I was lucky: in the right place at the right time.
3. This is really due to someone or something else
1. This is a great example of the way things always go for me.
2. This event is great, but it’s just limited to this one specific situation
3. This event is a quirk; it’ll never happen again.

When something bad happens to me, I tell myself that:
1. Wow, how unusual! This never happens.
2. This may just be a quirk; this normally doesn’t happen.
3. Here we go again. This is typical of what always happens.
1. It’s not me – it’s them.
2. Maybe I could have done better, but so should they.
3. I should have done better – it’s my fault.
1. Well, this is only limited to this one situation
2. This is too bad, and it could easily happen again.
3. This is awful. It will ruin everything.

Circle 1,2, or 3 and add up your score. The lower your score (close to 6), the more optimistic you are. The higher your score (close to 18), the more pessimistic you are. If you scored in the mid-range, you may be optimistic, but passively so. In order to achieve more, be more successful, maintain good health and possible longevity, you may want to work on how you can raise your score and develop a more dynamic optimistic attitude