I am Jignesh Mehta, a 32 year old businessman. My son Sunil, 5 years old will now be starting his primary education. I have read a lot of child psychology and child rearing books. They advocate a lot of practices ranging from restraint from physical abuse, various disciplinary methods and less burden on the child. However, I am not satisfied that this is the ultimate tool for the development of the child. Can you explain the one virtue in a child whose development can make a huge difference in his life and his achievements?
As such there is no one trait that can make the difference in life as the child’s future will determined by the totality of his environment, internal and external; his talent, your attitude towards him and so on. However, if you are looking at one single factor which makes the difference, it is no doubt the factor of optimism.
Optimism means having a strong expectation that, in general, things will turn out all right in life, despite setbacks and frustrations. Optimism is an attitude that buffers people against falling into apathy, hopelessness, or depression in the face of tough going. If it is a realistic optimism, and not a too-naïve optimism, it pays dividends. People who are optimistic see a failure as due to something that can be changed so that they can succeed next time around, while the pessimists take blame for failure, ascribing it to some lasting characteristic they are helpless to change. These differing explanations have profound implications for how people respond to life.
For e.g. in reaction to a disappointment like being turned down for a role in a play, optimists tend to respond actively and hopefully, by formulating a plan of action, seeking out advice and help; they see the setback as something that can be remedied. Pessimists, by contrast, react to such setbacks by assuming there is nothing they can do to make things go better the next time, and so do nothing about the problem; they see the setback as due to some personal deficit that will always plague them. Optimism predicts a lot of academic success. In school there is a measurement of talent. It is the combination of reasonable talent and the ability to keep going in the face of defeat that leads to success. What is missing is motivation measurement.
What you need to know about someone is whether they will keep going when things get frustrating. For a given level of intelligence, your actual achievement is a function not just of talent, but also of the capacity to stand defeat. The emotional reaction to defeat is crucial to the ability to marshal enough motivation to continue. Morale can deteriorate with mounting defeats, making it harder and harder to strive. Such rejection is especially hard to take for a pessimist, who interprets it as meaning – I am a failure at this; I will never succeed – an interpretation that is sure to trigger apathy and defeatism, if not depression.
Optimists, on the other hand, tell themselves that they are using the wrong approach. By seeing not themselves but something in the situation as the reason for their failure, they can change their approach. While the pessimist’s mental set leads to despair, the optimist’s spawns hope. One source of a positive or negative outlook may well be inborn temperament; some people by nature tend one way or the other. Optimism and hope – like helplessness and despair can be learned. Underlying both is an outlook called self-efficacy, the belief that one has mastery over the events of one’s life and can meet the challenges as they come up.
Developing a competency of any kind strengthens the sense of self-efficacy, making a person more willing to take risks and seek our more demanding challenges. And surmounting those challenges in turn increases the sense of self-efficacy. This attitude makes people more likely to make the best use of whatever skills they may have – or to do what it takes to develop them. People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. Ability is not a fixed property, there is a huge variability in how you perform. People who have a sense of self-efficacy bounce back from failures; they approach things in terms of how to handle them rather than worrying about what can go wrong.