Assuming positive intent- the secret weapon to surviving the holiday season.

The holidays are coming, or as people in the tech industry like say ‘seasonality‘ is approaching. During this time of year most of us will face a series of negotiations and decisions with people across our professional and personal lives. Conversations will unfold with co-workers and loved ones as we work to sync calendars, discuss budgets for spending, solidify holiday plans, and account for the differing needs of others during the busiest time of year. When differences of opinions arise, the urge to ‘be right’ is an irresistible response that heightens our emotions and can fuel conflict with others. (To every family member of mine reading this bear with me as I illuminate the small yet significant insights you’ve inspired over the years. Thank you for being my experimental group! Signed, Dr. Know-It-All.)

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‘Assuming positive intent‘ can help us move past our need to ‘be right’ and ‘win the debate’ and instead, cultivate a conversation where both parties are invested in finding effective solutions.  While the following tips won’t necessarily ‘feel right’ or reinforce your hard-won identity as a debate champion, it will help you avoid the emotional drain of gridlocking with others committed to their point of view.

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How to ‘assume positive intent’

The act of trying something new with a lightness of heart can be referred to as a ‘lark’. How to assume positive intent when conflict arises with others using my L.A.R.K. approach:

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  • Listen for their story. When we hear an opinion from someone that contradicts our understanding of a situation, we tend to stop listening because we become preoccupied with changing their mind until they agree with us. When we stop listening, we not only signal to the other person we aren’t interested in understanding them, we literally cut ourselves off from hearing critical information that could help lead to a mutually agreeable solution.
  • Acknowledge their point of view. Our tendency is to jump to conclusions when someone does something differently than we would, and assume the worst. Because humans are hardwired to perceive threat in instances of conflict, we focus on finding ulterior motives in those who disagree with us. Make a genuine effort to understand the premise of their opinion based on the information they have, and acknowledge their right to see things differently than you do.
  • Respect their difference. When we assume another person is misinformed, wrong or has malicious intentions, our tone of voice and non-verbal micro-expressions can turn negative. This can be read by others as an unwillingness to respect differences of opinion. Guard against communicating unintentional disrespect by modeling the response you would like to receive from others when it’s your turn to share your opinion.
  • Kindness cultivates generosity. Now when you feel yourself gunning to ‘prove your rightness’, take a step back and remember that when you preoccupy yourself with changing someone’s mind, you are reducing the likelihood of them responding with generosity, and increasing the likelihood of them responding with animosity when it’s time to generate possible solutions. Your job is to listen, acknowledge, respect, and convey kindness before moving on to explore possible solutions that could be mutually agreed upon.

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Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, describes learning to assume positive intent as the best advice she’s ever received:

My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.

Recognizing a different opinion doesn’t mean you are admitting fault, that your point of view is inferior, or that your opinion should have less value than others. Rather, assuming positive intent gives the other person the benefit of the doubt in order to set the best possible tone for generating solutions. It doesn’t mean you agree with their opinion, but it does allow you to see with more clarity where bridges could exist.

So when your co-founder, team mate or significant other holds an opinion that is entirely different than yours, aim to identify their operating system before trying to change it!

Give yourself the command “Tools > Clear History” to rid your mind of cutter that obstructs your ability to listen with less judgement. While we may never truly ‘know’ another person’s underlying motivation  behind their point of view, we can aim to convey a willingness to respect their difference.  Our mutual bandwidth for problem-solving is increased when we assume positive intent, so all parties gain more data points to generate viable solutions.

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How mindfulness meditation is strengthening today’s top leaders- the science behind the hype.

To stay ahead of the competition these days, high performing leaders are going beyond daily wellness habits in exercise, diet and preventative behavioral health. Mindfulness meditation has become the gold standard for fueling the uppermost skills that leaders depend upon in moments critical to their success. David Gelles’ book Mindful Work discusses the rising utility of mindfulness in the workplace, with leading companies like Google, General Mills, Disney and Patagonia using mindfulness training for measurable gains across all levels of employment. 

The ability to focus and stabilize our emotional responses to internal and external stimuli cannot be understated. Even for individuals who thrive under pressure, operating under chronic fast-paced, demanding conditions taxes our brain’s acuity over time. Brain training through mindfulness meditation works to restore our mental agility, improving our ability to effectively respond to stressors.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention in the present moment and choosing to respond purposefully and without judgement rather than automatically. Using mindfulness allows us to respond from a place of clarity and compassion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the physiological changes we experience in moments of stress.  This ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening situations and is responsible for instinctual emotional reactions like greed, fear or anger meant to protect us from harm. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism not only impedes our ability to think clearly and perform optimally, it’s proven to be deleterious to our overall health.

The practice of meditation dates back thousands of years with a wide span of techniques tied to cultural and spiritual origins. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT PhD in molecular biology developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. His work has been instrumental in bringing the health benefits of mindfulness practice to the public’s attention and scientific communities worldwide. Scientific outcome studies on mindfulness have since demonstrated positive benefits for people with chronic pain, heart diseaseaddiction, tinnitus, and complex physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

My doctoral training in mindfulness meditation began nearly 20 years ago through UCSF/San Francisco VA Medical center. I helped vets manage chronic pain and anxiety, quit smoking and improve their eating habits, teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery. Since then, I’ve seen how universally effective mindfulness is for helping people achieve health and performance goals that otherwise might be insurmountable. Bob Lesser, MPP, LP teaches mindfulness as part of his mental skills training with entrepreneurs in the tech ecosystem, who “gain mental clarity and focus, become less reactive and volatile, and achieve more control over their most challenging emotions.”

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How does mindfulness meditation change your brain?

The science behind the hype:

  1. Improves decision-making. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the MIT have found evidence that meditation alters the physical structure of the brain, increasing thickness and brain activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking takes place – judgment, decision making, planning, and discernment. A publication by The Wharton School of Management “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias”  discusses how short meditation sessions reduces the likelihood of making decisions based on information from the past that should have no bearing on the choice at hand.
  2. Stabilizes communicate skills under pressure. Instead of avoiding or exacerbating conflict with emotional reactions, mindfulness allows you to navigate clashes with the cool-headedness needed to facilitate successful conflict resolution. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that meditation reduced the size of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly fear-based survival instincts) after just 8 weeks.  Mindfulness practitioners were less likely to overreact and had fewer angry outbursts. Gains in “emotional regulation” increased by meditation endured in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
  3. Increases energy for heightened productivity. Mindfulness practitioners are more equipped to thwart stress and anxiety, and report increased energy levels compared to non-practitioners. Outcome studies on mindfulness have demonstrated reduced cortisol levels among users, quelling their experience of errant stress.
  4. Improves your focus. Meditators have been shown to perform significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention, processing speed, and inhibitory control. The most extensive longitudinal study on meditation to date discusses the role of meditation for improving focus and altering cognitive change across a person’s lifespan, preventing age-related mental decline.
  5. Strengthens your body’s immunity and pain tolerance. Mindfulness has proven to help people better manage chronic painaddiction, tinnitus, and recover from complex physical conditions, such as heart diseaseirritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.
  6. Awakens a deeper creativity. Meditation quiets the brain’s limbic system and supports mental decompression, facilitating the mental flow and innovation that gets lost in a busy, stress-filled day. Mindfulness practitioners were less cognitively rigid than non-practitioners, demonstrating a higher aptitude for getting ‘unstuck’ when solving creative problems.
  7. Builds resilience in the face of setbacks. Highly successful leaders use mindfulness to bounce back from failures, smarter and stronger. Fast-paced, demanding roles require a high stress tolerance, the ability to weather unpredictable outcomes and preserve a solution-focused mindset.
  8. Enhances peak performance. Taking a mindful moment (think seconds not minutes) primes and stabilizes the mind and body for optimal performance outcomes. SEALFIT Founder and CEO Mark Divine puts it beautifully, saying mindfulness is “a progressive process of integration: refining the physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual until they emerge as one.”  Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes and co-creator of USC’s Peak Performance Institute  shares that every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.

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Is “mindfulness” at risk of becoming just another buzzword? 

With science-backed evidence that mindfulness improves many vital areas of human functioning, the mindfulness meditation movement faces the threat of dilution by detractors hoping to capitalize on its potential, without generating real value for the consumer.

“By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.” David Gelles, author of Mindful Work

As a result, people will need to be discerning about the quality of different mindfulness products and services, as the market floods with new apps, programs, and brands that tout mindful solutions.

How should I decide what mindfulness services and products to try? Where to begin?

Whenever exploring a behavioral change for health-intended purposes, it’s important to clarify your goals and expected outcomes, and consider ‘why now’ is a good time to commit to a new activity like mindfulness meditation. Make sure to share this intention with your personal support system, and check in with professionals anytime you encounter challenges in the process. As the holiday season approaches, consider how mindfulness training could be positively impactful for you and/or your organization.

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Decoding my personal truth: how to figure out what to do with my life (and still ideally pay my bills!)

These days, people are increasingly using executive coaching for the purpose of ‘figuring out what to do with my life’ (and ideally still be able to afford living in the Bay Area!)  From high-ranking executives at globally successful companies, to startup founders who’ve sold their company and are now free to roam, to Bay Area transplants who’ve grown disenchanted with the tech scene- all have entered my practice ready to decode their personal truth, find their greater purpose, and build a personally meaningful roadmap toward their version of success.

“A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.”  Albert Einstein

Our personal truth serves as our unique roadmap, helping us navigate toward a future created with purpose.  Every day we make choices that steer us on our personal path- our inner beliefs, preferences, sense of right and wrong all come together to drive the direction we take in life.  In his book Unapologetically You, behavioral science academic and author Steve Maraboli advises us of the importance of this position: “Live your truth. Express your love. Share your enthusiasm. Take action towards your dreams. Walk your talk. Dance and sing to your music. Embrace your blessings. Make today worth remembering.”  

But what if we aren’t sure of what we are meant to do, and our greater purpose seems unclear?  How do we ‘know’ what’s right for us?

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Disenchantment A new Netflix toon with a title that captures the sentiment of many.

How can we be sure of ‘what’s best’ when we make choices for our future?  Some people feel a deep sense of conviction about their life’s purpose- “I was born to make music. I was born to build.  I was born to heal.”  Other people don’t feel this depth of clarity, and take aim for their future by solving tangible problems first- they develop a range of practices, skills and resources to prevent commonly avoided hardships like sickness, injury, poverty, social isolation.  Others feel satisfied knowing they’ve contributed to offsetting the needs of their family, community, or are embodying their religious tenets faithfully.  Even with recognizable success, some people may still wonder if they they’ve adequately challenged themselves to fulfill their personal destiny or greater purpose in life.  How can we ‘know’ if we’ve made the right choices for ourselves? At some point, a person’s experience of happiness and purpose comes back to personal taste, or preference for achievement.

Cultural expectations, opinions of people we admire, and social influences related to the times further shape our notions of what an ideal, purpose-driven, meaningful life looks like.  How have outside influences shaped your assumptions about what you should do with your life?  Without awareness of what’s driving your thoughts, feelings and behaviors it’s easy to get stuck in the habit of chasing goals without fully understanding if it’s personally important to do so. We can distract ourselves by measuring outcomes in size, volume, impact, or accumulation as a marker to indicate the degree of our success.  We may even learn to rely on these outcomes to tell us how satisfied we should feel.   

Three Exercises for discovering personal truth-  how do you ‘know’ yourself?

Cognitive psychology is the scientific study of the mind as an information processor- cognitive psychologists seek to understand human perception- the process of how we experience our emotions, how we develop mental representations, and derive genuine fulfillment from our experiences.  

Bring to mind some of your favorite moments in your past.  When you think about places, recreations, or experiences that you enjoy for the sake of the pleasure they gives you- try to uncover the why behind the attraction, or the feeling they’ve given you.  Identify your preferences in the following areas, simply based on your experience of them: how do you ‘know’ you like them?

  • areas in nature (cliffs, beaches, snowy mountains, open fields, woods, etc)
  • Sounds of specific musical instruments, musical genres, or eras of music
  • Social activities at a party (group games, exploratory dinner conversations, group cooking, dancing, people watching, etc)
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Discovering truth in Silicon Valley

2. Can you identify how external influences or mental representations play a role in how you developed these preferences? 

  • Consider how your family, social circles, workplace or local communities have shaped your understanding of how to best spend your time.
  • How does the narrative you’ve adopted about your personality style (e.g. loner, leader, helper) shape your predictions of trying new experiences and how you’ll feel about them?
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3.  Imagine moving to a society where areas of achievement, compensation for work and the social status of various roles were completely different than what we know them to be now.

  • Can you imagine choosing a role/occupation (a collection of responsibilities and activities) without knowing how this society thought of it?
  • What would you be doing? (Starting an original project? Building a team after evaluating competencies in people? Leading growth?)
  • How much of your attraction to these elements are because you’re familiar and/or been successful in doing these things in the past?  
  • If you found out there was one additional responsibility within this role/occupation that you were apprehensive to take on, what would that be?

These exercises are meant to help you uncover and tap into your personal truth, creating a guiding force for making choices in the big picture of your life path.  Be patient with yourself, track the evolution of your thoughts, feelings and insights throughout the process.  You’re on your way to ‘knowing’ yourself better than ever before.

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New year, new goals, now what? Ten lessons from some of Silicon Valley’s fastest rising founders.

For many of us, 2017 was an exhausting year fraught with political change, devastating natural catastrophes and economic strain.  But Silicon Valley never stops evolving, fueled by talented people driven to create positive change and effective solutions.  I’ve had the pleasure of coaching some of the Bay Area’s fastest rising founders, tech leaders and startup teams as they turned their ideas into reality, started companies that attracted clients with the biggest and hottest names in tech, joined executive teams that launched transformational products, and challenged themselves to take professional risks in new high level roles.  Engaging in coaching helped them sustain motivation and gain clarity through periods of doubt, burn out, and high stakes decision making.

Their pathways to achievement in the startup space are not meant to remain hidden and unaccessible to others who are just beginning their journey.  My goal as an executive leadership coach is to share honest lessons from their pivotal experiences so that others can find encouragement and make progress with aplomb.

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  1. You don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done (or the way others have done things for that matter) to “make it”.  For every newly minted ivy league graduate gunning for entrepreneurial success in the startup community, there are countless others who have leveraged their humble education or work experiences with immensely profitable gains.  Not having a degree is no longer a reason to believe you can’t create opportunities to learn and achieve in your chosen field.
  2. Fear and doubt are emotions not behaviors. Use mindfulness to manage your thoughts, which have a direct impact on your emotions.  You can’t rely on waiting for your emotions to ‘be ready’ to start taking on new challenges.  Set yourself up for success by using ‘SMART goals’, a behavioral timeline that is realistic and achievable, at a pace that allows small but measurable progress.
  3. Take your own short cuts.  Use what’s available rather than re-inventing the wheel. Our time and energy are better spent creating impact in unique ways than in rebuilding something that’s now available off the shelf.  Open-source, high engagement educational tools and projects, third-party design tools, and strategic outsourcing are ways to focus more of your time on leveraging your core competencies.
  4. Listen to your gut.  What are you truly curious and passionate about doing?  Find a space to explore and track these thoughts, talk about them with trusted others or engage in coaching to gain clarity around what you want to build towards in this phase of your life, and how to set yourself up to achieve your biggest goals.
  5. Embrace your difference.  Undeniably, the world remains in the grips of a political climate that systemically limits opportunities and equal rights for ‘otherness’ identities.  Yet now more than ever there is evidence that embracing diversity yields unique perspectives that reinvent what’s broken, generating innovative solutions that raise the bar across all industries.
  6. Grow at your own pace. While many people would love to have the problem of achieving rapid success, growing pains that strain one’s functional capacity can feel like a dam threatening to burst.  What’s at risk if you lose control of your growth pace?  It’s not necessary to convince yourself you ‘have’ to accept all the big opportunities that come your way.  Helping founders decide how and when to aggressively prioritize growth opportunities has revealed to me the critical value of pacing growth in the big picture of one’s success map.
  7. Use losses and transitions as a chance to re-evaluate and re-direct your personal vision of success.   The tech industry has the lowest average employee tenure, creating a cutthroat climate for those in the game.    Employment transitions and lost opportunities can feel overwhelming, especially for those whose work identity is a grounding anchor in their self-esteem.  It’s normal to feel uncertain about what to pursue next, especially if it opens up other major decisions like where to live, and what relationships should be prioritized in the grand scheme of one’s life.  Borrow Salesforce‘s ubiquitous alignment tool, the V2MOM.  Creating a personal V2MOM is one way I have helped clients formulate next steps according to their vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures.  It can help to do this exercise with an objective person you trust, or anyone without personal stakes in your decision-making.
  8. Pay attention to how far you’ve come, it’s further than you realize!  One of the most fulfilling parts of being a leadership coach is taking inventory with my clients of how much they’ve learned and grown by tracking their measurable progress.  As a lifelong skier, I’ve always enjoyed taking that moment to pause and look back at the steep, icy, once intimidating run I just came down.  It’s so important to acknowledge where you started!
  9. Surround yourself with people who want to see you win.  Well cultivated friendships and supportive social networks are irrefutably one of the healthiest, most rewarding things we can instill in our lives.  Making friends in adulthood can be intimidating, don’t hesitate to review some surefire tactics for building social equity into your current phase of life.
  10. Engage in mentorship for highest ROI.  Contributing to the collective wisdom of groups you been inspired by reinforces the ‘why‘ in your daily life, and serves as a springboard for reinforcing gratitude and resilience when you need it most.  It’s a way to bring together your values and share in building the communities you believe in most.
 

Improve your health and performance with Learned Optimism and you will win at life

What is the difference between someone who consistently performs to the best of their ability and someone whose performance is unpredictable?  What allows someone to effortlessly tap into their peak performance and reach their goals and what compromises a person’s ability to access and sustain it?  One word- outlook.  Martin Seligman‘s groundbreaking research on learned optimism reveals how being optimistic is consistently related to improved health and longevity.  A US study of nearly 100 000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an eight year period.  On the other hand, pessimism has been linked to chronic stress and poor health functioning such as high levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system, increased pain perception, and other signs of physiological and mental dysfunction.  Optimistic people appear to manage stress more efficiently than others so that their stress disappears at a faster rate than those who don’t utilize optimism in their outlook.

Seligman developed a test to help people identify their outlook style (which you can take here.)  If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t panic.  In fact, it means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial!

Executive coaching can be an effective way to learn and adopt optimism to improve your overall functioning and sustain peak performance in all areas of your life.  I typically work with high-achieving young adults in the tech community of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley.  Working with a coach is great for healthy people who are motivated to change what isn’t working, but need some guidance on how to execute strategically and efficiently.

The following tactics outline the basic tenets of Learned Optimism.  Keep in mind that our first reaction to something will always be automatic and happen instantaneously – that’s normal and to be expected!  We can acknowledge our initial reactions to an event without this becoming our permanent outlook on the matter.  That’s where Learned Optimism comes in.  We can cultivate this skill by identifying our first reaction, clarifying how this first outlook might impact our overall ability to problem-solve and perform, and challenge ourselves to adjust our outlook in order to optimize our performance and goal achievement.  With practice, we can improve our mental toughness, which is what helps a person cope with difficult situations, persevere and succeed at a high performance level.

Our outlook is shaped by our individual explanatory style, a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experienced a particular event, either positive or negative.  There are three components to this:

  1. The permanence of an event – how long someone thinks it will last
  2. The pervasiveness or scope of an event – whether the person sees the event as specific and contained, or global and all-inclusive
  3.  Personalization of an event – whether the person views the event as something that was caused entirely by oneself, others or external factors

Learned Optimism tool # 1 – Adjust TIME outlook for an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as temporary:

  • “The next fiscal quarter will be better.”
  • This is a short-term setback.”
  • I’m having an off day today.”

Find ways to view a positive event as enduring and reflective of personal ability:

  • “I’m on a roll now, because I’ve worked hard, practiced, and now have a winning strategy.”
  • I know I can handle challenging things because I’ve already overcome so much.”
  • “I’ve created opportunities for myself in the past, and am capable of creating more.”

Learned Optimism tool # 2 – Adjust SCOPE of an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as specific and contained to one situation:

  • The next event will work out better because of what I’ve learned this time around.”
  • “I won’t let this personal rejection or difficult co-worker get in my way or stop me from reaching my goal.”
  • Things at my company are rough right now, but my personal life is going well.”

Find ways to view a positive event as global:

  • “Earning this promotion has gotten me on the right path to developing as a leader in the company.”
  • “My management style is more effective since I’ve made an effort to be more approachable and generous with my time.”
  • Taking social risks has been challenging but I’ve learned that overall, people respond well to me when I reach out first.”

Learned Optimism tool # 3 – Adjust PERSONALIZATION to contain one’s responsibility, recognize which personal strengths were utilized, and which external circumstances influenced the outcome of an event.

For negative events, identify your personal accountability, then factor in others’ contributions and the role of external circumstances:

  • “I can see how I contributed to the fight my spouse and I had.  I want to clarify my expectations and work on finding some middle ground so the next time this issue comes up we can avoid a blowup.”
  • “I reacted without communicating beforehand with my team members, which led to a break down in our overall progress.  I will suggest a few temporary solutions until we can figure out a more inclusive strategy.”
  • My company is going through major layoffs, and in spite of the contributions I made that demonstrated real utility, I’ve been informed it’s time to find my next position.”

For positive events, recognize which personal strengths you utilized to bring this event to fruition:

  • “I stayed focused on my goals and was willing to work harder when other people were frustrated and fed up, which helped me move forward and achieve in spite of facing real adversity.”
  • “I’m more comfortable and experienced speaking in front of others than my co-founder, so I took on the responsibility of pitching our idea to investors and now our startup has seed funding.” 
  • “I’ve worked on building up my tolerance for discomfort in social situations, which I believe gave me the confidence to ask out someone I’ve been interested in for months.  Even if it doesn’t work out, I feel good about stepping up and taking initiative.”

Bringing it all together- learned optimism is a winning strategy to get through challenging or unfair situations by shining a spotlight onto where there is opportunity for improved coping, positive progress and effective solutions.  Our initial response to a situation may not be the most effective way to navigate it successfully.  The key to adopting an optimistic mindset is to acknowledge the inherent choice we have in our response.  Learned optimism is not an exercise in avoiding responsibility or ignoring dire circumstances either.  Adopt an outlook that encourages personal accountability, and supports your performance growth in every area of life.  From your education to your work to your health, it is your outlook that predicts your level of success above all else.

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