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  • 11.30.98

coping – Martin Seligman

“How you handle adversity in the workplace tends to have much more impact on your career than how you handle the good stuff.”

Title: President
Company: American Psychological Association
Location: Philadelphia
Age: 56

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What do National League baseball teams that rally to win late-inning games have in common with highly productive workers? According to Martin Seligman, president of the American Psychological Association, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” (Pocket Books, 1990), the answer is, quite a lot.

While studying the performance of players and managers in Major League Baseball, and of players and coaches in the National Basketball Association, Seligman found a remarkable correlation: Optimistic teams — as measured by how they talk about their performance in the sports press — play better under pressure than do pessimistic teams. For Seligman, the finding marked a new way to think about competition, work, and life. “For my whole life, the field of psychology has concentrated on correcting what’s wrong,” says Seligman. “But rather than trying to minimize what’s worst in life, we should maximize what’s best.”

Seligman developed the concept of “learned optimism” — and applied it directly to workplace productivity. “When pessimistic people run into obstacles in the workplace, in relationships, or in sports, they give up,” he says. “When optimistic people encounter obstacles, they try harder. They go the extra mile.”

What is Seligman’s advice on learning to be optimistic? Realize that when you react to adversity, you’re reacting not to an event but to how you feel about that event. You may not be able to control what happens to you — but you do have some control over your emotions. “When adversity strikes, how you think and what you believe determine how you feel and what you do,” he says.

Optimism in difficult situations, says Seligman, not only wins close ball games — it also helps people to grow in their careers. “How you handle adversity in the workplace tends to have much more impact on your career than how you handle the good stuff,” Seligman says. “The people who know how to overcome adversity are the ones who rise to the top of the organization.”

Heath Row (hrow@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company associate editor. Contact Martin Seligman by email (marty@apa.org).