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Try Something New: The Optimism Test

By Rob Fletcher

What happens when you try something new that is in some way challenging? How do you react you when you don’t quite get a new skill right away, or master a task? What do you tell yourself?

These are questions I ask during our music team building programs, whether it’s Play the Blues, Rock Band Inc. or Bang On My Drum All Day. All of these programs let people try out a new skill. And just like the first time someone tries to ride a bicycle, there are moments of failure before playing a song successfully. And the responses I hear and see from people holding harmonicas or drums for the first time are varied, even in a small group. In any given program, I’ll see enthusiasm, tension, playfulness, intense concentration, laughter, frustration, hesitation, excitement and defeat within a minute of starting.

The two ends of the response scale, the enthralled excitement and the giving up, especially intrigue me – what makes some people give up on a new challenge and what makes others thrive and take that challenge on, whether they are actually seeing progress yet or not? It’s especially interesting because something like a harmonica or a drum has a relatively low threshold level of expertise, unlike complex tasks such as learning a new computer program, learning to play the oboe, or even driving a car.

A Moment of Truth

I like to think of the moment of truth for people in these workshops (and in the myriad moments when we’re confronted with new challenges in an ever-changing world) as an optimism test. If you give up on something small, whether because of unrealistically high expectations (“I’ve been playing for five minutes and I still don’t sound like the guy on those Muddy Waters albums yet”), ‘challenge overload’ at work, or a myriad of other reasons, odds are you’re likely to give up more quickly when large challenges come your way.

Conversely, if you stick with something new, stay humble, are able to laugh at yourself gently, and have some faith that “I’ll be able to play something for my kids when I get home even if it doesn’t sound like much now,” you also stand a good chance at approaching life’s larger challenges with that same positive attitude.

Our Capacity for Happiness

Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, (www.authentichappiness.com) has spent a lifetime studying optimism and pessimism, happiness and depression. He says that how we explain events to ourselves when we fail is a key determinant for our capacity for happiness. He says, “When we fail, we all become at least momentarily helpless.” Whenever we try something new, we fail many times in small ways – we fall off the metaphorical bike, again and again.

But what do you do then? Do you give up? There are people out there who have given up on riding a bicycle, finding true love, making a positive difference at work, writing a book, giving the best of themselves. What stops us from living our best lives?

Seligman notes that people who explain events in a pessimistic style feel helpless when something bad happens. They see momentary misfortune as being permanent and universal. “I wasn’t able to play that note just then and Sarah next to me could” becomes “Everyone’s getting this except me. I can’t play this thing. I’ve never been able to play music. My first grade teacher told me I was tone-deaf and she was right. I’ll never be any good at this!”

The Optimism Edge

Optimistic people see failures as temporary, with specific causes for the failure. So, “I wasn’t able to play that note just then and Sarah next to me could” becomes “That was the first time I tried getting that note. It makes sense that I wouldn’t get it right away, but I know I will.”

Other optimistic thoughts that might follow? “This is just like learning to golf last year. It wasn’t until the 100th swing that I started to get a little of the magic of the game. I’m going to keep trying, I know I can get better at this – if Sarah can do it, so can I. And my kids are going to be really excited when I play a song for them tonight before they go to bed.”

Research shows that optimistic people are physically and mentally healthier, and more successful in school, sports, and work. But how do you exercise your ‘optimism muscle’ and stay in the game, no matter how tough it gets?


Rob Fletcher is a consultant, award-winning author, speaker and founder of Quixote Consulting. His dynamic and friendly approach has helped individuals and organizations around the world put their unique strengths in action. He can be reached at rob@quixoteconsulting.com.