How to Stay Optimistic: 3 Questions to Ask Before You Give Up

Guest Post by Ken Downer

How can you stay optimistic in the face of failure?

Failure is a natural part of doing business, of being human, and of attempting to do things you haven’t done before.  And when we fail, there’s a natural tendency to want to give up.  It’s hard to stay optimistic.

But before you pull the plug and succumb to a gloomy “it’ll never work” outlook, there are three questions you should ask yourself.  They could make the difference between giving up and achieving what you set out to accomplish.

Learning to be Helpless

In the 1960s Dr. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, was studying depression when he made an interesting discovery: helplessness is learned.

As part of an experiment, he put individual dogs in boxes and administered mild shocks to them through the floor.  Some boxes allowed the dog to escape, in others they could not get away.  Over time, the ones that could not avoid the shock simply lay on the floor, accepting the discomfort.

Then he put the same dogs in new boxes, each subdivided with a low wall the dogs could hop over.  One side was electrified, the other was not.  When he administered the shock, the dogs that could get away before simply hopped the wall.  But the dogs that previously could not get away continued to lie on the floor.  They didn’t even try to escape.

Seligman concluded that they had learned to be helpless.  He believed this concept applies to human beings, too.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Author Daniel Pink picks up this theme in his excellent book “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others” He introduces us to Norman Hall, a Fuller Brush salesman.  He’s one of the last old school salesmen, who goes door to door all day long selling cleaning products.

Most of those doors close to him. People don’t buy.  Hall faces rejection all day long.  Yet he’s been selling this way successfully since the 1970s.

How does he stay optimistic in the face of all that rejection?  Why doesn’t he just lie down in his box like the dog that learned to be helpless?

It has to do with what Pink calls his explanatory style.  It’s how Hall frames what happens in the overall context of what he does.

When the door closes, Hall thinks “The customer was busy, it wasn’t a good time to talk” or “Money is tight right now, they might have cash flow problems” or “They haven’t inventoried their supplies lately.”

The way Hall frames what happens helps him stay optimistic, and allows him to continue, even in the face of constant rejection.

To help us all stay optimistic, we can take a page from Hall’s book.  Pink explains that we just have to ask ourselves three questions.  How you answer those questions can help you stay positive, even when things haven’t been going so well lately.

Three Questions:

1.  Is it Permanent?

Will things always be this way, or was this just a temporary condition?  Those who are able to stay optimistic view conditions as short-lived and temporary.

The customer was having a bad day; the timing wasn’t right; money is tight right now.

If you can honestly see a problem as a short-lived condition, you open yourself up to the possibility that if you stick with it, you will be rewarded down the line.

Seeing the problem as Temporary will help you stay optimistic.

2.  Is it Pervasive?

Is it like this everywhere, or just here?  Are all people like that, or just this one?  If you can determine that the conditions you are facing are not the same everywhere, it leaves open the possibility that conditions will improve if you keep at it.

Maybe it will work with a different person, or in a new area, or under a different set of conditions.

Understanding that a problem is specific to certain conditions helps you see past the one you are in, and look for something better.

3.  Is it Personal?

Are you the problem, or is it something outside of you?  Sure, we can always improve our skills, approaches, and techniques, and it’s important to do so. But focusing on the external causes can help us stay optimistic.

That person just wasn’t ready to buy; this is not the right time for them; they aren’t clear on what they need.

Viewing the problem as external means it might be different with somebody else, and you have reason to keep trying.

Play the Prosecutor

When things go wrong, it’s easy to become defeatist.  We are tempted to set up a defense, to construct an alibi, and concoct stories in the attempt to explain why we are failing.

“It just wasn’t in the cards.”  “I’m not cut out for this.”

Often, these kinds of words are the verbal expression of learned helplessness, and like the dog in the box, we can be tempted to lie down.

To fight this urge, play the prosecuting attorney and cross-examine your story.  Would a jury of your peers accept that explanation in court?  Where are the holes in that line of defense? How solid is that alabi?  Are these really reasons, or excuses?

If you find yourself starting to squirm under cross-examination, you probably have good reason to carry on.

How to Stay Optimistic – The Takeaway

Anything worthwhile that you attempt is likely to involve failure.  How you respond to that failure can either turn you into a pessimist, or help you stay optimistic.

Is this shortfall permanent? Is the problem pervasive? Is it strictly a personal issue?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then you have reason to stay optimistic and keep going.  And like Norman Hall, you’ll find that some doors will open.

There are lots of other techniques to help you stay mentally tough and keep going in the face of adversity, whether it’s managing your expectations at the outset, focusing on the goal instead of the struggle, or learning to take things one step at a time.

The thing to remember is that Persistence is a multiplier in the formula for success.  Don’t lie down.

Lead on!

Ken Downer


Ken Downer has been a leader in many capacities, from his 26 years in the Army to his 17 years in the Scouting program.  His passion is sharing what he has learned about leadership with other leaders, particularly the next generation.  You can connect with Ken on Twitter or LinkedIn or catch his weekly leadership insights at his web site,


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