By John Langhorne / Guest Editorial

In a recent meeting with a group of people, we moved through a series of self-perception exercises designed to identify their core motivators. Out of about 15 possible motivators, everyone chose either one or both of: attitudes and relationships.

Now we all know the slang, “she has an attitude,” to mean that she has a bad attitude and most of us can spot such a person quickly. They may come with several different sets of behaviors, but we know they are not pleasant to be around.

Attitude is complex and people have many ideas about attitude, not all of them bad. Let’s begin with some elementary psychology, “Head, Heart, Hands, Health.” Some of you will recognize this as the 4H pledge: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, My heart to greater loyalty, My hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

This is also the most succinct description of the domain of psychology: Head – cognition; Heart – emotion, Hands – action. Don’t you wish your psych prof had said this on the first day of class? It’s a great model.

An attitude is a combination of cognition and emotion that manifests itself in action. Let us dive a little deeper into psychology and choose a well-researched and powerful attitude: Optimism – pessimism.

I once wrote an article titled, If You See A Bathroom Use It!” at It is not about growing older or traveling abroad. But rather, it is a metaphor about perception and action. Our perceptions of ourselves shape our lives. Consider optimism. Optimists live longer, are healthier, have better relationships/partnerships, are more satisfied in their occupations and happier in their lives.

Serendipity is the key ingredient in original research. Twenty five years ago, a psychologist named Seligman was studying reactive depression, specifically learned helplessness. While ruminating about this, he wondered what you would get if you flipped learned helplessness with learned competence. This led him to the indepth study of optimism-pessimism. It turns out that these attitudes result from how you explain your experiences to yourself

This explanatory style is an instantanious way of thinking/feeling that is largely learned. This means that by working on yourself you can become more optimistic. This is a cool tool to improve your life. Here is how a pessimist thinks/feels: Bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything I do and are my fault. This is a presumption of personal helplessness.

Optimists conversely think/feel: Bad events are temporary setbacks, isolated to particular circumstances and can be overcome by effort and abilities. This is the presumption of personal competence. “If you see a bathroom” is the optimists’ view of the world. The common model is the half-full glass.

“Use it!” of course, is action. A characteristic of successful people is a strong tendency to take action. Perhaps encapsulated in the phrase “in any situation is it better to do something rather than nothing.” There are at least two compelling reasons that this attitude toward the world is effective. First, when you do something, it makes you proactive, you are exerting control over the world not the reverse.

Second, when you do something, even if it is wrong, it changes the external world and these changes are percieved as opportunities, by optimists. This is what economists call a virtuous circle as opposed to a vicious circle.


In any situation it is better to do something rather than nothing.

So, how do you become more optimistic? First, by doing something. You can begin by recognizing that your best asset is located behind your eyeballs and between your ears.

You brain is the locus of cognition so you can engage in mental activities to improve your optimism. Here are a couple simple tactics that have been shown to work. The first is thought stopping. When you have negative thoughts as in pessimism, simply say to yourself: “stop.” This is effective for some but not all people.

Framing, combined with external or internal self-talk, is another tool. Examples: “We just got our brains beaten out and don’t have a prayer,” or “That was an interesting experience. Now what can we learn from it.” Also consider, “I am a fully functional mature adult” or “I am a worthless and incompetent fool.”

These two examples illustrate extreme cases of how we can define the environment and ourselves. Each creates expectations that exert heavy influences on our feelings and actions. Fortunately, in both cases we can self-manage our way out of the negative ones and toward the positive.

As to changing others’ attitudes: how many psychologists does it take to change a lightbulb? One, but the lightbulb must want to change.

The idea of self-defining is a powerful one and usually referred to as self-efficacy. For an excellent in-depth and understandable discussion of this, visit

The human mind is a wondrous thing, using it you can make your life better or worse. One way is by working on your attitudes. Choose.



John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at His book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at