1. Individual causation:
- Internal—I made that happen.
- External—Other people or circumstances made that happen.
2. Stability over time:
- Permanent—It always happens that way.
- Temporary—It only happened that way this time.
3. Consistency across types of events:
- Universal—That’s the way it happens in all areas of my life.
- Specific—It only happens that way in this one area of my life.
Imagine the following scenario:
You have been working very hard to show the higher-ups at work you are ready to take on a dangling multimillion-dollar account. Eventually, the higher-ups do assign the account to you.
So how do you explain that? Maybe something like this:
- Internal—I was the best choice for this account.
- Permanent—I am skilled and resourceful at overseeing big accounts.
- Universal—I can compete successfully for many big projects.
That sounds very favorable in terms of your own contribution to this success. It also sounds like you are on track for continued success. This explanation is pretty optimistic.
Then again, maybe your explanation sounds something like this:
- External—Maybe the others didn’t try very hard.
- Temporary—Maybe I was this lucky just this once.
- Specific—I certainly wouldn’t have that kind of luck at other things.
That doesn’t sound too favorable in terms of the role you, yourself, played in this success, does it? That diminishes the chances of future success right there. This explanation is more pessimistic.
Now imagine the scenario going differently:
You have been working very hard to show the higher-ups at work you are ready to take on a dangling multimillion-dollar account. Eventually, the higher-ups assign the account to someone else.
So now here you are, explaining a setback instead of a success. Let’s see how the first approach (internal, permanent, and universal) is working now:
- Internal—I went about it the wrong way.
- Permanent—I don’t think I’ll ever figure it out.
- Universal—Anything competitive doesn’t work well for me.
Oh. That’s not very uplifting. What worked well in explaining a success seems to backfire when explaining a setback; not exactly what would motivate you to try again.
Let’s see about the second approach (external, temporary, and specific):
- External—Other, more urgent matters kept distracting me.
- Temporary—I don’t usually get so distracted from things that are important to me.
- Specific—This is the one goal I did not attain.
Hmm…this time the second explanation sounds friendlier; you are more encouraged to keep at it, despite the setback. In this case, the second explanation allows you to keep up an overall optimistic attitude.
There clearly is a pattern here. How much you weigh your own contribution can turn out very favorable in explaining a success: you, yourself, made it happen; the outcome is the rule, not the exception; and you have a similar competency level in other important areas.
Setbacks, on the other hand, are more tolerable if: you can identify causal factors outside your person; those factors don’t usually affect you that way; and those factors wouldn’t be an issue in other areas.
As Seligman points out in his book Learned Optimism, people form habits of their patterns of explaining things. These habits can cause a person to generalize explanations in a more optimistic or in a more pessimistic light, and these generalizations can become pervasive across areas of life.
For people at certain career junctures, maintaining optimistic habits can become especially crucial, as pessimistic habits can become especially detrimental. Mind you, this is not to say you should be in denial when faced with roadblocks. “Optimistic” does not mean you should whitewash difficult realities.
What does “optimistic” mean, then? That becomes apparent when you consider its relation to “optimal”: this means “the best under the circumstances.” Circumstances, in turn, often come with a great deal of ambiguity, especially in things career-related. Whether you feel encouraged or discouraged overall can go a long way in how you deal with such ambiguity, and how you take action on it.
How about you? Do you tend to get mired in pessimistic explanations for successes? For setbacks? Maybe for both?
Then the good news is: habits can be re-learned! Try the following sample successes and setbacks.
- Success: You won the chess tournament.
- Success: Someone who works at one of your target companies accepted your invitation to connect on LinkedIn.
- Setback: You came in last in the mile run.
- Setback: You never heard back from XYZ Company after applying for that job.
Challenge yourself to explain successes in the most internal, permanent, and universal way possible, and setbacks in the most external, temporary, and specific way possible. And feel free to leave a comment, too!