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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Cultivating optimism

My sister, who works in human resources, was recently talking about some of the questions that she asks prospective employees. One of her favorite interview questions is, "Tell us about a mistake you've made and how you handled that." As she talked about the answers she had gotten from a few recent interviewees, I found myself wondering how I would answer that particular question. It seems obvious that the 'right' answer is NOT, "Hmmm, I can't think of any", and yet, I honestly couldn't think of any example I might relate in a job interview. I'm not saying I'm perfect - I decided that it's more that I have a way of 're-writing history' in my head. And then I saw an article at GreaterGood about raising optimistic kids and it explained my way of seeing the world much better than I had ever seen it articulated before (I apologize for a somewhat long quote but I think it's worth it):
According to Seligman and other researchers, how optimistic or pessimistic we are amounts to how we explain life’s events, be they good or bad. There are three basic dimensions to an explanation: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. The OPTIMISTIC way of understanding why something GOOD happened would explain:

The cause of what just happened as Permanent (so it will reoccur);
And Pervasive (it will affect many other circumstances, too);
And Personal (I made it happen).

On the other hand, the PESSIMISTIC way of explaining why something GOOD just happened would illustrate that:

The cause of what just happened is Temporary (something short-lived caused it – probably won’t happen again);
And Specific (affecting only this situation);
And Impersonal (I didn’t have anything to do with what happened, other people or the circumstances did).

The reverse is also true when something bad happens. A kid trips on the sidewalk and skins her knee, dirtying her new dress. The pessimist thinks: “I’m so clumsy – I’m always tripping everywhere, and now I look stupid.” The cause of her fall is (1) permanent—she sees it as a personality trait, and therefore it is both (2) pervasive and (3) personal. On the other hand, the optimist thinks: “Dang! Someone oughtta fix that crack in the sidewalk!” She’s thinking that a flaw in the sidewalk, not her own inherent clumsiness, caused her to trip. That crack is (1) temporary; (2) specific to that moment; and (3) impersonal—she had nothing to do with

The article also talks about 'growth mindset', which emphasizes effort and hard work as keys to success, versus 'fixed mindset', which emphasizes innate traits (like 'intelligence' or 'talent'), and the role of these attitudes in helping parents encourage optimism in their kids. As a teacher, I could immediately see the importance of an optimistic, growth-oriented mindset for students to succeed in the classroom; in fact, although I had never really thought about it before, I now realize that somehow, I acquired the optimistic mindset early in life and that is one reason I always did well in school. Now I just have to figure out how to encourage that in my students...

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