Books That Can Change Your Life: Learned Optimism
As someone dedicated to improving his brain as a lifelong goal (and also as a nerd at heart), I am someone who reads a lot. Kindle books, audiobooks, tons of blog posts and online articles. Much of what I read is related to learning, technology, and self-improvement. Few books are so relevant that I’d consider them to have drastically affected my life by themselves.
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. is one of them. The book chronicles Seligman’s 30+ years of research in one phenomenal focal point of psychology: the conditions that make a person either quit trying to do something, or exhibit relentless persistence. And furthermore, it talks about how to learn persistence—something that was a life-changer for me and could be for anyone else.
About the book, Learned Optimism
Dr. Seligman has spent decades attempting to understand something fundamentally important to human progress: what makes us either quit when working toward a goal becomes too tough—or keep on trying until we succeed.
His work started with dogs. When placed in a tough situation (cages with electric shocks), he noticed something profound. A certain percentage of the dogs would stop their attempts to escape once they hit their individual threshold, and essentially gave up permanently—a phenomenon Seligman termed “learned helplessness.” Conversely, he also observed that another percentage were relentless—they just wouldn’t stop trying, despite failure after failure after failure.
The latter behavior, he later discovered, was a key factor of success in human beings whom he later studied in sales and other jobs—persistence was strongly correlated with success, far more than natural talent. And what’s even more incredible is that this relentless persistence and optimism can be taught—hence the title of the book.
These two things amazed and motivated me at the same time: not only do you need natural talent to be good (even the best) at something, but the characteristic that will get you there—real persistence—is entirely learnable.
Key lessons from the book
The book describes a key trait that is very different in those whom succeed in their endeavors as opposed to everyone else: the way they explain their misfortune.
In other words, those who succeed and those who don’t think differently about situations that go wrong. And that in turn promotes their success or failure.
Here are some details. Those who have trouble succeeding explain the bad things that happen in these ways:
- Personal: they see the situation as their fault, rather than caused by external factors
- Permanent: they perceive the incident as something that always happens and always will happen.
- Pervasive: they think of their misfortune as a permanent condition, rather than an isolated incident.
This blew my mind. I did this stuff a lot.
For contrast, here are some examples of self-defeating ways to explain bad things that happen, and more powerful, self-promoting alternatives. Let’s say you have a bad day at work.
- Personal: “I suck at my job.” (vs, “I made a mistake at work today.”)
- Permanent: “I’m always messing things up at work.” (vs., “I messed something up at work.”)
- Pervasive: “I will always mess up at work.” (vs, “I messed something up today, but tomorrow’s another day.”)
By viewing the way you explain challenging occurrences in your life through this lens, you’ll see patterns emerge. The more you notice the patterns, the more you can change those personal, permanent or pervasive statements into ones that are more productive. This gradually changes your belief system about yourself, which helps you see each challenge as less and less of a big deal. This, in turn, helps you recover much more quickly from those roadblocks to anything you want to achieve, and that fast recovery is the crucial driver for your success.
How Learned Optimism changed my life
For a long time, I struggled with extreme social anxiety and low self-esteem. I was horribly awkward around people, made poor first impressions, and committed many a faux pas.
And beyond that, I was ashamed to ask for things. I remember when I was about 13, a friend and I went to McDonald’s—a bustling, corporate McDonald’s in Manhattan. At that age, I was just learning some simple level of independence – traveling to Manhattan (from Queens) with a friend and no parents was a relatively new experience for me.
In this case, I remember buying my food, coming back to our table with it and realizing that I hadn’t been given napkins. This was before it was common to have napkin dispensers on tables – in this case at least, I would have had to go back to the bustling counter and ask a human for more napkins. But I couldn’t; I was so scared, anxious and fearful of talking to a stranger at that moment and requesting something I needed for myself, that I just sat down and ate, probably using my sleeve to clean my face.
Fast forward another 15 years or so into the future. I had already been working on things like the above for years. My social anxiety improved through a lot of personal observation and effort. But getting the things I wanted was often a struggle. Learned Optimism was one of many books I read, but one of the few that I really made an effort to apply and practice the lessons from—it’s paid off tenfold over time and continues to do so.
Personal impact: things that changed about me
With the tips in this book, I improved myself in many areas of my personal and professional life. It’s actually pretty incredible how applicable the information in this book is to any area of life you can think of.
Perception of things that didn’t go my way.
Instead of thinking, “that went bad because I’m lousy at XYZ,” I instead stopped talking about myself with such pervasive and personal statements, like the book encourages. I would instead say, “That could have gone better. Here’s what I can do next time when this happens.”
Changing my language.
The way I described situations in my life—both in my head, and out loud—changed along much more positive lines. Not only was I less likely to describe my misfortune as permanent, personal or pervasive, but I could see positivity in others’ misfortune as well.
Furthermore, I described people in a much more empathetic way. I was less likely to think of someone that messed up as a “dumbass” or someone who bumped into me on the sidewalk as a “jerk.” They’re just people who made mistakes, if it was even their fault at all.
Handling rejection way better.
I used to think of rejection as something personal, permanent and pervasive. When someone said “no” to something I was asking for, I took it to heart; I thought that “no” meant “never,” and also thought it meant I didn’t deserve the “yes”—not now or ever.
Over time, I started to think of every “no” as another opportunity to get to a “yes” somehow, at some time (or an indicator that maybe it wasn’t meant to happen). The average number of attempts I made before giving up got a lot higher. And I became a lot less likely to think of any rejection as saying anything pervasive about me, or my self-worth.
Speeding up my recovery from failure.
I used to play Lumosity brain games for example. I would play a “speed match” round, and instinctively curse every time I messed up, which dropped my score. And the moment of stress would cause me to mess up a second and third time in a row, like a chain reaction. By applying these principles, I was less likely to curse, or impulsively react when messing up, and more able to bounce back quickly.
Shortening the time to try again.
Seligman taught me that those who excel at anything aren’t the most gifted ones; they’re the ones that (1( have the guts to try, repeatedly and (2) the ones that bounce back quickly each time they fail. To that end, I made myself way more inclined to make repeated attempts to get the things that I wanted. When I was single, I’d approach women often. When one wasn’t interested in talking to me, I politely and quickly moved right on to the another. And so on until a conversation was happening. I wasn’t Don Juan, but I got better.
When pursuing clients, this meant taking a “no” on a project in stride. If a potential client didn’t want to work with me, I’d accept it without disappointment if it were for valid reasons. Such as, “You’re too far outside my budget—but maybe for another project, it would make sense.” I rarely ever feel bad when someone doesn’t want to work with me anymore. If a project isn’t a fit, one will come along that will be.
Trying again and again and again.
My personal tenacity has grown tenfold. If I want something badly that seems impossible on the surface, I’m going to look at it from a half dozen angles at least before ruling it out.
External results: things that changed about my life
The above character traits directly translated into concrete improvements in my life. Here are some areas in which I saw tangible results.
My work life.
When applying for new jobs/projects, I used to get upset if I didn’t get the response about one I really wanted. Over time I was less attached to one application, and instead sent out much more of them.
I eventually also built up the skill of following up on a particular application if I really wanted it – multiple times. With some projects, I would email the person 3 or 4 times until I got a response or moved on.
When trying to get my point across in work meetings, if I got misunderstood or talked over, I used to get very disappointed and give up. After applying the principles in Learned Optimism, I built up a lot more tenacity in situations like this, believed in my ideas a lot more, and held on to make sure that I was heard.
My dating life.
Instead of sulking when a date didn’t go well (or I couldn’t get one), I persisted. After practice, I was dating more frequently, and my dates went better overall. I was more persistent (without being intrusive, annoying or rude) when getting shot down. And when I did get shot down, I shrugged it off and moved on much more quickly. Each rejection was no longer something personal and pervasive; I viewed it much more like a learning experience.
My learning ability
With a learning impairment, it’s frustrating to pick up a new skill or even learn new information. Sometimes it means being careful about what you take on since new learning is a significant time and energy investment. At other times, it means you’re fearful of learning something new since you know the process could be wrought with frustration, so you avoid it entirely.
This changed quite a bit after Learned Optimism. Both of those things happen, even to this day – but I’m much more inclined to try something that might be considered challenging, and much more persistent at it until I get it.
Read it, learn and practice.
If you read no other book I ever recommend to you, get this one—it’s foundational to all types of personal growth. All the biohacking, strategies and tips for working with your brain aren’t nearly as effective as they could be without the mindset of persistence this book will expose you to. Conversely, if you improve your propensity toward perseverance, you’ll be more successful at everything you do.
Try out the methods in the book. Tell me when you do, via email or in the comments. I’m excited to hear about your experience with it.