Are you a natural optimist? When adversity strikes, do you tell yourself it’s temporary and not your fault and consider all of the things in your life that are going well despite the one setback? Or do you chalk it up to inherent personal failings and give up? Evidence shows that if you tend to the former, you have a greater chance at being happier and more successful in business. If you tend toward the latter, it’s not too late to change that habit.

For me, optimism is not a default setting. Raised in a deeply cynical home by a mother whose family fled Europe to avoid persecution, I was not inclined to look for that spot of silver in a dark cloud. Quite the opposite, I didn’t trust good fortune, worrying about impending catastrophe likely to follow. I unwittingly spent many years nurturing a somewhat gloomy outlook not optimal for overall success.

Any natural optimism I had was drilled out of me in law school, where I learned to “think like a lawyer,” which I thought meant to see potential pitfalls, liability and risk in every scenario.

But that is not what it really means to think like a lawyer. As I reflect on it almost three decades after law school, I no longer believe it was intended to breed pessimism, but rather to develop the skill to see every argument from both sides and to do so rationally and unemotionally. That is the gift you give your clients. As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in “On Thinking Like a Lawyer” in Harvard Law Today: “Thinking like a lawyer means combining realism with idealism. … One of my colleagues at Chicago ends her first-year civil procedure class by saying: ‘Sometimes in the first year of law school, people learn to think like lawyers, but to be a little less like people. You’ve learned the first of those things. You shouldn’t let us teach you the second.’ I disagree. There is no dichotomy here. Thinking like a lawyer is thinking like a human being, a human being who is tolerant, sophisticated, pragmatic, critical and engaged. It means combining passion and principle, reason and judgment.”

Over the years, I have seen this exemplified in a handful of lawyers I was fortunate to meet. Some were opposing counsel who did not let the fact that we were adversaries mean that we couldn’t also be friends. I modeled myself after them, learning to recognize that I was fighting a client’s battle, not my own. At the end of the day, the important thing is to do the best work possible, and that does not require personal acrimony or behaving like a brute. And yet, pessimism runs rampant in our profession and in the world at large. Why?

Our ancestors who survived the ice age may have pessimism to thank, because they had the capacity to worry constantly about the future, according to “Learned Optimism” by Martin E.P. Seligman. And we are still using the same brain, trained to perceive threats and danger. Some niches in life even appear to require some pessimism. Companies need innovators, dreamers, futuristic thinkers. But a business also needs people who have a realistic perception of challenges, roadblocks, liabilities and risks. Attorneys, accountants, financial planners, stock brokers, business managers, doctors, chief executive officers and others in the business world cannot be oblivious to its realities. But many of these careers are also entrepreneurial, requiring salesmanship, networking and marketing.

As I wrote last month, a key ingredient in marketing is optimism, the ability to believe that the next time will be different. How do professionals, valued for their ability to make sound judgments and reckon with harsh realities, turn around and market their services given that rejection occurs in any sales effort? In other words, what is a pessimist to do?

Seligman argues that individuals can choose the way we think about adversity: “Your habitual way of explaining bad events, your explanatory style, is more than just the words you mouth when you fail. It is a habit of thought, learned in childhood and adolescence. Your explanatory style stems directly from your view of your place in the world—whether you think you are valuable and deserving, or worthless and hopeless. It is the hallmark of whether you are an optimist or a pessimist.”

Do you ever find yourself saying, “That’s just my luck,” when thinking of a negative experience? Is there evidence to support that you have consistently bad luck or are you focused only on trials that have come your way, taking any good fortune for granted? There are three critical aspects to an explanatory style, according to Seligman: “permanence, pervasiveness and personalization.” People who think about bad events in absolutes such as “always” and “never” have a permanent pessimistic style, while optimists use qualifiers like “sometimes” and “lately.” They relate adversity to temporary conditions resulting in a more positive outlook. As Ellen Freedman, a natural optimist who specializes in helping lawyers manage the business side of their practices, says, “No doesn’t mean never. It means not now.”

Is it beneficial to think this way? Significantly. Seligman argues that pessimism breeds depression, while optimism has widespread benefits to our health, career success and happiness. It is all important in marketing as you try to turn that “no” into “now.” Seligman explains how habitual thinking leads to undesired results using the ABCs: “When we encounter adversity, we react by thinking about it. Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. These beliefs may become so habitual we don’t even realize we have them unless we stop and focus on them. And they don’t just sit there idly; they have consequences. The beliefs are the direct causes of what we feel and what we do next. They can spell the difference between dejection and giving up, on the one hand, and well-being and constructive action on the other.”
In short, pessimism prolongs setbacks and optimism reduces them.

Here are some strategies to develop optimism:

  • Examine your explanatory style when an adverse event occurs. It does not have to be a major event—it could be as simple as someone cutting you off in traffic. Do you blame yourself or think in absolutes? Be mindful of your habitual beliefs. Keep a record for a few days of your observations.
  • Think like a lawyer. You’re already good at this. Dispute those habitual beliefs that follow adversity with evidence. Use your well-honed skills to craft an alternative explanation. Is it really permanent or pervasive? Is it something you can change or influence? Is it your fault at all? Look for facts that support alternative explanations and ask yourself if there is a more constructive way to look at each event.


Reprinted with permission from the June 25, 2015 edition of “The Legal Intelligencer” © 2015 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact 877-257-3382, or visit