Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Optimism and the "persistence instinct"

The CBS "60 Minutes" piece on USC coach Pete Carroll this past Sunday described him as someone who is "upbeat, optimistic, and seems to have a permanent smile on his face."

[Click here for the blog posting from yesterday about the "60 Minutes" story.]

That description got me thinking about the role optimism plays in success. Does a more optimistic coach or player have a better chance of succeeding than one who is pessimistic?

A book titled "Breaking Murphy's Law" by a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky examines this very question. The author isn't a motivational speaker; she's a scientist.

According to the author, if you're "optimistic" you "can easily envision yourself accomplishing what you want and, although you can recognize the possibility that not everything will turn out well, you think the odds are in your favor." It's just the opposite for a pessimist.

Her research has found that optimism isn't about "being a positive person" as much as it's about "motivation and persistence."

As an example, early in the book, she describes two law school students from a long-term study she conducted on "how optimism affects psychological well-being." One student was found to be in the top 10% of optimistic students. The other was in the bottom 10%.

"The... pessimistic one didn't seem horribly depressed, and the... optimistic one didn't seem happy-go-lucky. Still, there were dramatic differences in their approaches to law school that had to do with how they tackled the difficulties they encountered.

The pessimistic student dealt with difficulty by withdrawing, ruminating, disengaging, and eventually underachieving. The optimistic student dealt with difficulty by setting goals, planning, engaging, and eventually reaping the rewards.

The essential difference was NOT between positivity and negativity, but between trying harder and trying less.

Positive expectancies -- optimism -- increase motivation and effort, whereas negative expectancies -- pessimism -- decrease motivation and effort. Optimism leads to increased well-being because it increases engagement with life's goals, not because of some miracle happy juice that optimists have and others don't."

She calls this willingness to work longer at tasks as the "persistence instinct." In her words, "optimism makes you push ahead."

Based on the author's research, it's when things get difficult -- when there are obstacles and roadblocks on the path to your goal -- that "you see the biggest differences between optimists and pessimists."

"Difficult tasks create different dynamics. There are natural responses to difficulties and roadblocks. First, emotions turn to irritability, dejection, or anxiety. Second, preoccupation with, and attention to... this problem increases. Roadblocks threaten goals, and any kind of threat results in negative feelings."

Think about when a team hits a losing streak or has one of its key players go down with an injury. The team's goal -- of winning the division, reaching the playoffs, or repeating as champions -- is threatened.

When this happens, some people simply give up. Of course, "keeping at a goal is no guarantee that you will reach it. On the other hand, rejecting it almost ensures that you will not."

"This is where optimism comes in. Optimism helps people see beyond the immediate roadblock to a potentially positive future, whereas pessimists see only more roadblocks, problems, and failures.

For optimistic people, it makes sense to incur the costs of trying to get past a roadblock because they expect rewards in the end. Positive expectancies keep people working on difficult tasks... when it would be easier to just give up. Pessimistic people have no such inspiration and therefore fail to see the point of putting effort toward the negative future they envision."

Armed with this information, it would seem to make sense to gauge a recruit's or potential draft pick's level of optimism. After all, based on research, it's a good indicator of how hard someone will work to reach a goal, especially when faced with distractions and obstacles.

Near the end of the book, the author outlines three simple steps for "increasing intrinsic motivation" (i.e., motivation that comes from within us rather than some kind of external reward) that may be helpful for leaders, coaches, and teams:

  1. Own the goal.
  2. Make if fun.
  3. Remember the big picture.