Optimism in a Recession

Our communications columnist makes the case for maintaining a positive outlook when headlines are gloomy and offers five tips to help you do so

Are you feeling down about the economy? You're not alone. A recent estimate by the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan cited in The New York Times showed Americans were more pessimistic about their situation than they have been for over a quarter-century. Here's the problem this raises for your business' success. If you fall into the camp of pessimists, your attitude will rub off on everyone in your workplace and you will fail to inspire your employees, customers, and colleagues. Being in a good mood will raise your energy level, give power to your words, and boost your professional presence. Optimism can be learned. Here are five tips for developing optimistic habits.

Build on your strengths.

Inspiring leaders focus on their achievements. They learn from setbacks but never consider them failures. Events that most of us perceive as catastrophic are just blips in the eyes of these individuals. In fact, some of the most innovative companies, like Google (GOOG), actually encourage people to fail. Google recommends that its engineers carve out 20% of their time to dream up new ideas (BusinessWeek.com, 9/27/07), the vast majority of which will fail, but a small percentage of which are responsible for turning Google into an Internet powerhouse.

Radiate optimism.

When I worked for CBS covering the first 100 days of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration in California, I recall a conversation with a staffer who said Schwarzenegger inspired him to be a better person. Why? Because he doesn't allow negativity, this staff member told me. Schwarzenegger demands that conversations focus on solutions and not on obstacles. Negatives are a no-no. Schwarzenegger knows that to be an action hero in real life, his presence must be positive, confident, and optimistic. He stands tall, walks briskly, shakes hands with gusto, and maintains eye contact with his listeners. He recognizes that body language is part of communicating.

Speak highly of yourself, especially when talking to yourself.

As a communications coach, I help people improve the way the present themselves to others. But improvement begins with the conversation in your own head. "The road to failure is paved with negativity," writes Tiger Woods in How I Play Golf. "If you think you can't do something, chances are you won't be able to. Conversely, the power of positive thinking can turn an adverse situation into a prime opportunity for heroism."

Do your own thoughts limit your potential? Best-selling author Joel Osteen writes: "Many people suffer a poor self-image because of their own words. They've gone around putting themselves down for years and it prevents them from rising higher in their personal lives." When I meet clients with a fear of public speaking, we always start with their own self-talk. More often than not, your success or failure can be traced back to the conversation you have with yourself.

Surround yourself with builders, not detractors.

You'll only go as far as the people you hang with. Oprah Winfrey has said: "Surround yourself only with people who will lift you higher." You are more likely to be extraordinary if you spend time with extraordinary people who are better than you at certain skills. Learn from them, and your audience will be enchanted by how much it can learn from you.

Create magnificent obsessions.

Inspiring individuals dream bigger than everyone else. Donald Trump has said: "If you're going to think, think big." Small plans are not inspiring. A big vision is.

Inspiring leaders are optimists in the way they think and speak. Negative headlines about the economy don't get them down. It fuels their fire. I once heard a story about a military trainer for the Special Forces who said that if he had to choose between two people he could be lost in the jungle with—one who has survival skills and no confidence, the other who has no survival skills but all the confidence in the world—he would prefer to join the confident one because the optimistic person stands a better chance of getting out the jungle alive. At your own business, who would you rather have by your side: the person who buys into the gloom or the one with the unshakable belief in the future? Be the person people want to join.

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