How To Keep A Positive Attitude

Tom Morris

In every talk I give, I begin by asking the audience to name for me some of the great philosophers in history. Immediately, people start yelling out the names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Confucius. And then, more often than not, someone will shout "Yogi Berra!" So I suppose it's all right for me, as a philosopher, to quote that old catcher of insights, when he once said about baseball something true of life: "Ninety percent of the game is half mental." He coulda been a stoic. And actually, if Seneca or Epictetus had spent thousands of hours squatting in the hot summer sun, they might have put it the same way. Cicero himself once did say that, in this life, attitude is almost everything. The big question for many of us then is how to keep a positive attitude in everything we do.

The Problem of Negativity

We often face a problem at work rarely discussed in management books. We're blocked from the positive attitude we need by negative emotional energy. In any job, things happen that produce bad feelings. We see the wrong person promoted. We lose a client. We hear 'no' one time too many. We're going through a creative dry spell while pretending that everything's just fine. The market is challenging. We're doing more with less, and the pressures of downsizing are always in the backs of our minds. Or, growth is coming too fast. The company's culture is changing in unpredictable ways. It's a sink or swim world and we're suddenly feeling a cramp.

The sources of negative emotions, and a resulting negative attitude, in all our relationships are almost too numerous to list. Neglect, hostility, an insensitive word, or a small act of apparent betrayal, can cause negative reactions on a deep emotional level. We need to be careful how we respond to such things, or we fall into self-defeating patterns of emotional behavior.

We all have typical patterns of reacting to what happens around us. It's important to become more consciously aware of those patterns, and decide whether they are healthy. We always have the freedom to choose whether to indulge what seems to come naturally, or rather to cultivate a different response.

Emotional reactions become habitual over time. By allowing ourselves to continue to react to unwanted situations with negative feelings, we promote a tendency of inner behavior that can harden into a persistent attitude. And this inner behavior, with its accompanying attitude, eventually gives rise to more problems.

Check your passions that you may not be punished by them.

Our negative reactions of anger, resentment, and irritation, often have a side to them that feels a little bit good. We're hurling an inner dart at the person or situation offending us. We think to ourselves they deserve to be the object of anger. If no one were irritated at their behavior, they'd be getting away with something. We'll take care of this situation. So we fume. We tense up. We direct a mental tonality of disapproval in their direction - as if our inner emotions can inflict damage on anyone other than ourselves.

If you're all balled up in negative emotions, you're not going to be able to experience the positive attitudes that are most conducive to success and satisfaction in our world. Because of this, one of the most powerful acts, as well as one of the most powerful of all emotional states, is that of forgiveness.

To forgive much makes the powerful more powerful.
Publilius Syrus

A top manager in a very large organization once told me that they were having tremendous problems because of the simple fact that two of their vice-presidents could not forgive each other for something that happened many years ago. No management tactics, motivational techniques, or strategic planning innovations had been able to overcome the ongoing damage that a lack of forgiveness between two people was inflicting on this big company.

The Power of Transcendence

Are negative emotions getting you down? Are they hindering anyone who reports to you? Are they holding back your whole organization? Remember this. We have the power to rise above any negative situation. Tell yourself to transcend whatever's eating away at you. Put it into perspective, and realize how little it will mean in the long run. Wisdom is always about putting things into perspective. Take a deep breath, use positive imagination, and resist the self-defeating lure of the negative. As Yogi might say, "You wonıt get over it 'til you just get over it." Inner transcendence is the path to personal freedom.

The great stoic philosopher and Emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, long ago pointed out that "Your life is what your thoughts make it." We can take charge of a situation most powerfully through first controlling our inner thoughts, emotions, and attitudes by deciding that we will not allow ourselves to be defeated in our own feelings. When we engage in positive emotional behavior, we clear full access for our deepest potential to have free play in the world.

Small souled people make a big deal about small problems. Great souled folks minimize those troubles in their hearts so they can best overcome them with their heads and hands. And then they take action. Positive action in turn cultivates positive attitude. As the philosopher William James discovered, the way we act and the way we talk can determine how we feel. But it all starts with the way we think.

In the ant's house, the dew is a flood.
Persian Proverb

Ninety percent of the game is indeed half mental. Transcending negativity is vital, but we won't enjoy a strong positive attitude day to day unless we also renew our inner vision for what we're doing, give ourselves regular reminders of the nobility of our cause, and use our imaginations to enjoy at least a measure of the good we're doing in the world. Positive attitude ultimately depends on positive imagination. And that is entirely up to us.


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