Pessimism is a Career Success Killer

I saw a quote from Bill Clinton the other day that I really like. “Pessimism is an excuse for not trying and a guarantee to a personal failure.”  This is some great career success advice.  As I point out in my career advice book Success Tweets, you have to be an optimist to create the life and career success you deserve.

Tweet 44 in Success Tweets says, “Be an optimist.  Believe that things will turn out well.  Don’t sulk when they don’t.  Learn what you can and use it next time.”  In other words, don’t let yourself off the hook by becoming a pessimist.  As President Clinton points out pessimism can be a great excuse for not trying, or for giving up when things get tough.

Did you see the movie, Remember the Titans?  It’s a sports movie about an improbable situation based on a true story.  Denzel Washington starred as the coach of the T. C. Williams High School Titans.  Williams was a newly integrated high school in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1971.  Denzel’s character, Coach Herman Boone, was a black man chosen to be the head coach over a very popular coach who had been the head coach at the high school prior to it being integrated.

The team had a lot of good athletes.  They were undefeated as they entered the State Championship game.  Things didn’t go well in the first half.  In the locker room at half time, Denzel makes a speech in which he congratulates the team on coming so far in such a short period of time.  He tells them that win or lose he is proud of them.  It seems as if he has given up.  It sounds like a speech losing coaches give to teams after a game – not at half time.  After all he and the team have accomplished, he’s become a pessimist.

One of the players speaks up.  He challenges the coach.  He says something like, “We were perfect when this game started.  We’re still perfect until it’s over.  I, for one, want to finish this game like we started it – perfect.”  This impassioned speech rallies the team, and they win the game.  It’s a feel-good movie about a group of young men who learned how to pull together regardless of their differences.

And it makes the first point about optimism and pessimism.  Even when the coach turned pessimistic and seemed ready to give up, one player wouldn’t.  He was an optimist.  He believed they would win.  His optimism was contagious.  The team rallied and won.  I don’t know if things went down exactly that way in the real locker room, but that scene reinforces the power of believing things will turn out well – not in letting yourself off the hook with excuses.

If you don’t believe you can win, if you don’t believe you can create the life and career success you deserve, you won’t.  If you do believe, if you’re an optimist, you’re on the right path to winning and life and career success.

But believing is not enough.  It will set you up for your career success, but you will still find times when you fail along the way.  That’s where the second piece of career advice in Tweet 44 comes in.  Don’t sulk when you fail or lose.  Don’t become a pessimist.  Treat every failure and loss as a learning experience.  Use failures and losses as stepping stones to creating the life and career success you want and deserve.

I was frustrated early in my career.  I saw other people getting promotions for which I thought I was better qualified.  My first job in business was in the training department of a large oil company.  I worked hard, did a good job – and kept getting passed over for promotion.  The reasons were vague – “you’ve only been here a little while,” “the hiring manager thought the other person was a better fit,”  “you need to polish up some of those rough edges.”

So I found another job; this time with a chemical company.  I worked hard, did a good job, got good performance reviews – and no promotions.  I was frustrated.  In my heart of hearts, I knew I was as good as or better than people who were moving ahead while I was standing still.

I decided that maybe more school would be the answer.  I quit my job, and enrolled in a PhD program in Adult Education and Organizational Behavior at Harvard.  Once I got there, I realized that the same thing happens in academia as happens in business.  The hardest workers and best performers don’t always get rewarded and promoted.

I found myself getting pessimistic about my life and career success at this point.  Then I decided that I had an opportunity to use my situation – and my frustration – as a lab.  I chose optimism.  I didn’t sulk.  I chose to learn from my frustrations and failures.  After all, I was at Harvard.  I was surrounded by high performers – people who had achieved a lot at an early age, and seemed destined to achieve even more.  I decided that maybe I should pay some attention to these folks.

I got one of those marble-covered notebooks and made a list of all the people I admired at Harvard.  Then I made a list of all the people in the companies where I had worked who got the promotions I didn’t.  I made another list of the people I knew whom I considered to be positive role models.  I didn’t stop there.  I started reading biographies of successful people.  I created a page for each person.  I wrote down the characteristics that I observed in these people.  When I was finished, I had a notebook full of the characteristics I observed in successful people.

It was a long list.  So I started looking for patterns and groups of behaviors.  When it was all said and done, I found seven distinct characteristics that the successful people I had studied had in common.

They all:

  • Had a clearly defined purpose and direction for their lives.
  • Were committed to succeeding.  They faced obstacles and overcame them.
  • Were self-confident.  They knew they were going to succeed and continue to succeed as they went through life.
  • Were outstanding performers.
  • Knew how to present themselves in a favorable light.  Other people were attracted to them and wanted to be around them.
  • Were dynamic communicators.
  • Were good at building relationships.

These are the ideas on which I built Success Tweets, my career success blog posts and my career advice coaching and talks.

Once I finished my degree, I took a job with a very large pharmaceutical company in New York.  I started applying the lessons I’d learned from observing successful people – and I began getting promotions and good assignments.  I became the confidant of several senior executives and I began coaching up-and-comers in the company – teaching them the basic principles I had discovered by writing my observations in that marble covered notebook.

I also kept refining my ideas – making them easier for others to understand and apply.  You never learn something as well as when you teach it.  I became the most sought-after internal career success coach in that company.

In 1988, I was faced with a decision: accept a big promotion, or strike out on my own.  I decided that I have an entrepreneurial bent and chose the latter.  I opened up a small consulting, coaching and speaking business.  The idea was to reach even more people with what I knew about creating their life and career success.

I tell this story not to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate the second point in Tweet 44: When things don’t turn out as you hope, don’t sulk.  Learn what you can, use it next time.  Stay optimistic about the future.  Don’t become a pessimist.

The career success coach point here is simple common sense.  Successful people are self-confident and optimistic.  As Bill Clinton points out – they don’t use pessimism as an excuse for not trying.  Optimists are not afraid to try.  They believe that things will turn out well, and more important, when they don’t, they use their experiences to learn and grow and do better next time.  Follow the career advice in Tweet 44 in Success Tweets.  “Be an optimist.  Believe that things will turn out well.  Don’t sulk when they don’t.  Learn what you can, use it next time.”  I’m big on optimism.  My optimism has helped me create the life and career success I wanted.  Your optimism can do the same for you.

That’s my career advice for today — prompted by President Clinton’s quote on pessimism.  What do you think?  Please take a minute to share your thoughts with us in a comment.  As always, thanks for reading my daily musings on life and career success.  I value you and I appreciate you.


PS: If you haven’t already done so, please download a free copy of my popular career advice book Success Tweets and its companion piece Success Tweets Explained.  The first is 140 bits of career advice, all in 140 characters or less.  The second is a whopping 390 + pages of career advice explaining each of the common sense tweets in Success Tweets in detail.  Go to to claim your free copy.  You’ll also start receiving my daily life and career success quotes.

PPS: I opened a membership site on September 1.  It’s called My Corporate Climb and is devoted to helping people create career success inside large corporations.  To celebrate the grand opening, I’m giving away a new career advice book I’ve written called I Want YOU…To Succeed in Your Corporate Climb.  You can find out about the membership site and get the career advice in I Want YOU… for free by going to http://www.mycorporateclimb.

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