By Paula Davis-Laack • July 28, 2011•Writers in Residence
“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” William Arthur Ward
Do you roll your eyes when you hear the word “optimism?” I used to. Looking at a situation with a glass-is-half-full mentality is a great way to go through life, but come on, is it really a realistic way to think and to act? If law school taught us nothing else, it was how to think like a lawyer - how to look critically at a set of facts and analyze arguments and language. While thinking like a lawyer helps win trials and close deals, it may not help you be the best friend, parent, spouse, or colleague. As you make your way through this article, think about optimism in the same way you view “thinking like a lawyer;” in that, optimism is a way of thinking and not a personality trait.
The concept of optimism as a thinking style was developed by noted psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, over 40 years ago. When something bad happens – like having a fight with a significant other, losing a trial, or getting a bad grade – optimistic thinkers believe that what caused the problem is under their control (i.e., they have the ability to make things better), that it will only affect specific areas of life, and it’s temporary. On the contrary, pessimistic thinkers analyze a life or work problem and think that solutions are out of their control, the fallout from the problem will affect several different areas of life, and the problem is going to be around for awhile (Seligman, 1990). Seligman points out that having a pessimistic thinking style is linked to increases in anxiety, depression, and feeling out of control or helpless. In addition, Lawrence Krieger, one of the leading researchers on attorney and law student dissatisfaction, theorizes that the process of “thinking like a lawyer” is linked to the development of pessimistic thinking styles (Davis-Laack, 2010).
Think about this scenario: One of the partners you work for asks you to do some research on a particular topic and write a brief on your findings. You submit your best work to her, and she returns it full of red ink. An optimistic thinker would acknowledge the mistakes, put her head down, and re-do the assignment. A pessimistic thinker would stew about the situation becoming convinced that this one project means that she’s a bad lawyer and won’t make partner.
There have been numerous studies of optimism which show that people who think optimistically are physically healthier, more productive, report fewer symptoms of depression, and do better in school and in sports than people who think pessimistically (Seligman, 1990). Optimistic thinking motivates people to persevere and to find work and life solutions to problems.
So should you think warm, fuzzy thoughts all day at your desk while you deal with your clients’ toughest problems? NO!! I know that I’ll never be the first female Major League baseball player (as I had hoped when I was 8), I won’t ever sing like Celine Dion, and I’ll never marry Kirk Cameron (as I hoped when I was 12). If I lived my life as though these things might happen, my stupid optimism would undermine my life and my goals. Thinking like a lawyer is a valuable tool in your attorney toolkit, but having a skill that makes you good in your profession does not always translate to happiness in other areas of life. The goal is to craft a balanced approach to your thinking that is both flexible and realistic.
The next time you encounter a work or life adversity, ask yourself these three questions developed by Dr. Karen Reivich, which will help you gain a more optimistic edge:
- Where do I have control?
- What can I focus on to make this situation better?
- What can I learn from this problem?
If you are curious about your style of thinking and wondering where you fall on the optimism/pessimism spectrum, you can take the Optimism Test found at www.authentichappiness.org.
Seligman, M.E.P. (1990). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Random House.
Davis-Laack, P. (2010). The science of well-being and the legal profession. Wisconsin Lawyer, 83(4), 14. Article found at: http://www.wisbar.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Wisconsin_Lawyer&template=/CM/ContentDisplay.cfm&contentid=91853.