At the Elementary School Heads Association annual meeting I attended last week in Vermont, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation about the importance of optimism in leadership, parenting, and learning. The talk was given by Charlie Jones, a life coach and brand builder with the Brand Intersection Group, which consults to clients such as Panera, Ritz Carlton, and GoGo Squeez. He maintained that there are six discreet skills that people can learn that make them better leaders and more effective parents. As it happens, these same competencies help children become stronger, more engaged students. These skills also have been found to make people happier, healthier, and more successful in general. In fact, they are said to “inoculate” people from depression.
Basing his ideas on the work of Martin Seligman, a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, Jones maintained that all of these capabilities are related to optimism. Seligman's research, which has now been widely replicated, demonstrates that, with practice, people can shift from a life of "counter-punching," reactivity, and victimhood, to a life of greater control, pro-activity, and agency.
The first skill that Jones sketched out is “reframing.” It can be transformational to recognize that we can choose the lens through which we view events. We can learn to adopt an optimistic, growth-oriented mindset or a negative, fixed, resigned one. For instance, instead of seeing an experience as a failure, we can choose to focus on the learning we can gain and on fine-tuning our approach for the next attempt. As Nelson Mandela said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.”
Second is resiliency. As Jones put it, “Bounce. Don’t break.” By maintaining our flexibility, we maintain a sense of possibility. Instead of believing “this will never work,” the question needs to be, “What will it take to make this work?”
Third, optimists maintain hope and set goals. Instead of “believing it when I see it,” or giving up, the key is learning to articulate goals that will lead to success. Performance is dramatically enhanced when one takes the time to identify the right steps to reach goals and to fine tune one’s course along the way.
Jones pointed out that emotional mastery is also a critical component of optimism. “Know it and show it.” Research finds that those who can identify and communicate emotions build healthier relationships and avoid the frustration and pessimism that can come from being misunderstood.
Self-efficacy is another skill related to optimism, happiness, and success. What is meant by this is taking a “can do” attitude, realizing that one has the power to create new outcomes. Instead of saying, “This always happens to me,” one needs to adopt an attitude of “I can make this happen if I _____.”
Finally, determination is a key component of optimism. In the education world much has been written lately about grit. This has to do with a willingness to sustain and maintain effort in the pursuit of goals, despite set backs or hard work. Jones put it this way: “Practice is perfect.” We have to recognize that facing or learning something new can be uncomfortable. In order to arrive at the next level of performance, we have to muscle through. Looking for a “quick hack” undermines mastery and the development of persistence.
Jones concluded by citing the good news that optimism is one of the only personality traits that has been found to be changeable through learning. That means that by consciously trying to adopt the characteristics of a growth mindset, optimism, and flexibility, we are better preparing ourselves and our children for our ever more rapidly changing world.