Enjoying Your Work


Develop an optimistic
thinking style in the
face of challenges

When faced with adversity, some people react in a helpless manner and do not make attempts to overcome difficulties. Other people react to adversity with a positive outlook, viewing difficulties as hurdles to be overcome.

What is the difference between the two groups? People who bounce back from setbacks often have an optimistic thinking style. For example, a woman may apply for a job in Hawaii that is very attractive: excellent salary, good working conditions and opportunities for advancement. She buys an expensive suit for the job interview. She meets members of the selection committee and has long conversations about her qualifications. But she does not get a job offer.

There are three elements in an optimistic thinking style that allow people to move forward after such disappointments. First, they think about the setback in a specific rather than a general manner. "Specific" means this job and this job interview. "General" means all jobs and all interviews in the future. If people can focus on the specific setback, they will not mope about their limited chances for other good jobs. Second, optimistic thinkers focus on the unstable rather than the stable aspects of their job search. "Unstable" means that companies, interviewers, and job markets change and these may change in their favor. "Stable" means people think their job search failures will remain steadfastly in place no matter how hard they try to change.

The third element is that people consider external aspects of their problems and do not focus solely on internal issues. "External" refers to issues outside the control of people who are seeking jobs. One external reason for job interview disappointments is that the selection panel had a sweetheart candidate. Panel members had a person in mind all along, but went through the motions of an open search for legal reasons. Clearly, job candidates should not blame themselves if they are competing with a sweetheart. "Internal" means that people focus on themselves and their perceived shortcomings, and they often become overly harsh in their self-assessments. If they are too self-critical, they may talk themselves into inaction, such not seeking other good jobs.

When the external-internal distinction is discussed, I recommend that people try to maintain a balance between these two reasons for setbacks. There are often internal reasons that should be examined: interview style, questions a job candidate chooses to ask, attractiveness of resumes and so forth. The recommended additional focus on external factor is meant to move people away self-blame and hopelessness for the future.

An optimistic thinking style that focuses on specific issues, instability, and a balance between external and internal factors can be practiced and then applied to many problems that people face as part of their daily lives.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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