Human Sustainability - Be Positive. Take Responsibility. But Don't Take it Personally.


Some see challenges as opportunities, but how does one get there?

Commanding, “do it” is as useless as saying “cheer up.”  But you can practice positive ways to think about a situation. One well-researched approach is “attributional style.” Noted psychologist Martin Seligman sums this up in his book Learned Optimism:

“The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe that bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe that defeat is just a temporary setback or a challenge, that its causes are just confined to this one case.”

His point is how you attribute the causes of success and failure: time (permanence versus impermanence), generality (pervasiveness versus situational), and you versus others (personalization versus externalization).

Optimists attribute success to enduring traits within themselves: “I am really good at many things.” They attribute failures to external and situational issues: “this person doesn’t like what I have to say today.” I.e., it isn’t your fault, but that of time, place, and external factors. Thus: you are inherently successful; failure is luck, and readily changeable. (The reverse for pessimists, of course.)

Our research suggests a slight tweak for leaders (Seligman started with salespeople): While a problem or failure is still seen as impermanent and situational (due to this time and this place), personalization works differently. While not blaming themselves as such, they do own responsibility to act: “this situation isn’t my fault, but it is up to me to fix it.”

Apply this kind of thinking to daily life and situations yourself, and you increase your optimism – and one aspect of human sustainability. This thinking permeates our work in developing leaders; come see what we are doing at

Marietta Bryant