The term “optimism” sometimes gets a bad rap in our culture today. Many people equate optimism with “wishing and hoping.” Sometimes optimists are referred to as “Pollyannas,” after the title character in a 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter and the 1960 Walt Disney movie by that name. If someone calls you a Pollyanna, it’s probably not meant as a compliment. Cynical people use this term to portray optimists as foolishly cheerful, naive, and unable to accept reality.
But if you read Porter’s novel Pollyanna or watch the Disney movie, you’ll see that Pollyanna was not foolish or naive at all. She was an orphan who had experienced trials and losses, who constantly dealt with life’s unfairness and with dour, nasty people, but she had learned to find hope and an optimal attitude in even the most hurtful situations.
If anyone wants to call me a Pollyanna, I will gladly accept the title. I believe it’s a virtue and a strength to look for reasons to be glad and hopeful when you’re going through trials and setbacks. There’s no reason to believe that a pessimist or a cynic is any more realistic than a Pollyanna. In fact, I’ve always found that it is the Pollyannas, the optimists, who are the true realists, the achievers, the ones who get things done. We celebrate go-getting, positive-thinking optimists. After all, when was the last time you saw a statue honoring a pessimist?
In uncertain times, optimists always have the advantage. The optimist looks at his or her uncertain circumstances and says, “I don’t really know how this is going to turn out, but I’m going to expect the best outcome and I’m going to work hard to make good things happen.” By contrast, the pessimist looks at uncertain circumstances and says, “I’m always a victim of Murphy’s Law—if something can go wrong, it will. I always have bad luck. Why even try? Might as well give up.” Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, your attitude frequently becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Numerous scientific studies have shown a clear relationship between an optimistic mental attitude and the state of our physical and mental health. Optimists are statistically healthier people than pessimists with regard to such illnesses as clinical depression, heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and, yes, cancer. There are several obvious reasons for this, some having to do with the lifestyle of an optimist. Positive people tend to be more physically active, consume a more healthy diet, and do not feel the need to alter their moods with alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Because optimists feel more confident and in control of their lives, they feel less stress in difficult situations—and emotional stress is known to play a role in depressing the immune system and other crucial systems in the body.
So when Dr. Reynolds told me that my optimism was going to help me in my battle with cancer, he was not just dispensing platitudes. He was giving me good medical advice. He was offering me a realistic assessment of some of the key factors in my medical prognosis. In my battle against cancer, he said, my positive mental attitude was one of my strongest allies. I latched on to this hope, and Dr. Reynolds’s words have proven reliable again and again throughout my cancer journey.
That’s why I want to pass this insight along to you: Make optimism your first ally. While there are no guarantees in any cancer battle, you have a realistic reason for optimism. Hold on to that hope. Maintain your optimism. Your positive attitude is going to get you through this.
Stanford business school professor and researcher Dr. Robert I. Sutton reports that one of the distinguishing marks of a good business leader (a “good boss”) is that he or she is interested in “the little things,” the details of the organization. An ineffective and arrogant business leader (a “bad boss”) is only interested in the “big picture” and considers “the little things” as being unworthy of notice. “Big picture” bosses, says Sutton, tend to “see generating big and vague ideas as the important part of their jobs—and to treat implementation, or pesky details of any kind, as mere ‘management work’ best done by ‘the little people.’ . . . [They] avoid learning about people they lead, technologies their companies use, customers they serve, and numerous other crucial little things.”
Sutton cites the example of a CEO of a major cellular phone company who made a series of disastrous product development and marketing decisions because all he cared about was “the big picture.” This CEO was out of touch with the features consumers really wanted in their phones, the “little things” his customers were looking for—so the marketplace rejected his company’s products.
By contrast, Sutton says, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs was able to envision the big picture while also maintaining a focus on the little things. From the time Apple opened its first Apple Store near Jobs’ home in Palo Alto, the CEO himself would often visit the store. Sutton writes, “Jobs constantly fussed over details such as the quality of the shopping bags, where employees stood in the store, and the color of the walls and tables, and what they conveyed about the brand.” One of the keys to Steve Jobs’ brilliance was his ability to focus on the little things within the big picture.
As Sutton concludes, “I am all for big ideas, visions, and dreams. But the best bosses do more than think big thoughts. They have a deep understanding of their industries, organizations, and teams, the people they lead, as well as other mundane things. . . . This ability to go back and forth between the little details and the big picture is evident in the leaders I admire most.”
Leaders can delegate tasks and authority, but leaders cannot delegate responsibility. A leader is responsible for every action and decision made by the people under his command. Great leaders build teams of creative self-starters, then empower their people to make decisions. They set clear objectives and standards, then they check in often to make sure those objectives and standards are met. By paying attention to the little things, great leaders accomplish big things.
Coach John Wooden was the greatest coach who ever lived. That’s not just my opinion. That’s the consensus opinion throughout the sports world.
In July 2009, The Sporting News published a ranking of the fifty greatest coaches of all time, in every sport, at every level, both collegiate and professional. The ranking was made by a blue-ribbon committee of sports writers, coaches, and top athletes. The number one coach on that list was John Wooden, followed by Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant. During his tenure as head basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins (1948-1975), Coach John Wooden won ten NCAA national championships in a twelve-year period, including seven championships in a row. During that time, his Bruins won a record eighty-eight games in a row. His record is unprecedented, and is likely to stand as long as the game of basketball is played.
Coach Wooden always seemed to think three moves ahead of everyone else. Whenever I was with him, I felt like I was a student and he was the master, the mentor, the teacher. And if I needed insight, I needed only to lower my bucket into the well of his wisdom, and there would always be plenty of insight to draw from.
So, on that evening when he told me that the key to success in life is “a lot of little things done well,” I felt I had fallen into a gold mine. Those seven words matched up exactly with everything I had experienced in my own journey toward success—and they matched up with the experience of successful people in many fields.
Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade was named 2006 Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. He helped lead the Heat to two NBA championships (2006 and 2012). He also helped lead the 2008 United States men’s basketball “Redeem Team” to a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He ascribes his success to “little things,” saying, “Guys who might not be superstars, but because of their hustle, because of the little things they do, these are the guys who can really mean the difference between winning and losing.”
Swimmer Ryan Lochte, who won two Olympic gold medals in Beijing and two more gold medals in the 2012 London Summer Olympics, also says that the difference between winning and losing is the little things: “I’m going to focus on speed, doing little things like my turns and my starts—just speed.”
But the little things are also important in fields that have nothing to do with athletic competition. Sir Roger Penrose is an English mathematical physicist. He shared the 1988 Wolf Prize for physics with Stephen Hawking. He once explained that the discovery of a grand scientific principle often takes place not as a sudden, huge revelation but as a series of small inklings, one idea building on top of another. “People think of these eureka moments,” he once said, “and my feeling is that they tend to be little things, a little realization, and then a little realization built on that.”
Bruce Barton was an advertising executive, the cofounder of the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO) agency. He invented Betty Crocker and named the companies General Electric and General Motors. He also served as a two-term congressman from the state of New York. Barton once observed, “Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century English writer and literary critic, has been called “the most distinguished man of letters in English history.” He understood the importance of little things to the art of living well. He once wrote, “There is nothing, Sir, too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.”
If you apply Coach Wooden’s greatest secret, big things will happen in your life.
“We need to be visionary; we have to be bold.” —Novelist Angela Hunt
Detroit-born folk-protest singer Sixto Rodriguez performed and recorded in the late 1960s and early ’70′s. His bold songs about racial discrimination and justice for the poor were compared to the social commentary music of Bob Dylan.
Rodriguez’ music failed to gain traction with U.S. audiences, and his performing career ground to a halt. He returned to Detroit and eked out a rough living in the demolition industry.
Meanwhile, an Australian recording label re-released Rodriguez’ albums, which found their way to racially divided South Africa. His songs about the plight of the poor in inner-city Detroit quickly became anti-apartheid anthems all across South Africa.
Rodriguez himself was completely unaware that his music was inspiring peaceful protests in South Africa. He continued to scratch out a living in the rubble of Detroit—and record producers quietly pocketed his royalty checks. According to South African urban legend, Rodriguez had committed suicide during a stage performance.
In 1996, after apartheid ended, Sixto’s daughter discovered a website celebrating his music as a force for change in the peaceful revolution that ended apartheid in South Africa. Only then did Sixto Rodriguez discover that, through the bold message of his music, he had been a leader in a movement he didn’t even know he led.
If you want to lead a great movement, proclaim a bold message.
“Freedom lies in being bold.” ―Robert Frost
“Integrity is telling myself the truth. And honesty is telling the truth to other people.” —Spencer Johnson
I considered him a hero and a role model. I was fooled.
USA Today‘s Christine Brennan named cyclist Lance Armstrong “2012′s ANTI-sportsman of the year, hands down. He lied, cheated, bullied, and deceived his way to seven Tour de France titles and millions of dollars from those who believed his story was pure and true. It wasn’t. Not even close.” His deception is all the more offensive, Brennan writes, because Armstrong set himself up as “far more than a superb athlete. He had marketed himself as a superb person, too.”[i]
In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Though doctors gave him slim hope of survival, surgery and chemotherapy saved his life. Beating cancer became part of the Lance Armstrong legend.
Allegations of doping dogged him, though he had passed some 600 drug tests. Armstrong called himself “the most tested athlete in the world.” But in 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency released evidence that Armstrong had operated “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”[ii]
Now he’s stripped of his titles and hero image, and being sued for millions. The next time you’re tempted to betray your integrity, remember Lance Armstrong—antihero.
“Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.” —King Solomon (Proverbs 10:9)
[ii] BBC, “Lance Armstrong: USADA Report Labels Him ‘A Serial Cheat,’” BBC.co.uk, October 11, 2012.
“We gain strength and courage and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face. We must do that which we think we cannot.” —Eleanor Roosevelt
My son David, a Marine, was part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He told me a story about the life-saving importance of competent leadership.
“Our lieutenant led our motor convoy,” David said. “He took us on a shortcut, and we got lost. We found ourselves on a narrow dirt road with a berm on our left and a canal on our right. We had twenty vehicles and forty Marines. The road was so tight that we couldn’t back out.
“We kept going forward until we came to another canal. Now we couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go back. Our lieutenant started to freak out. Iraqi townspeople gathered, watching in amazement.
“At that point, the first sergeant took over. He was calm, organized, and a quick thinker. He assembled a team and told them, ‘Dig out the berm so we can get the vehicles moving, then we’ll turn around.’ He pulled us all together and got us all on the same page.
“Somehow we made it out before any Iraqi troops arrived. Our first sergeant was confident and competent to handle the crisis. He probably saved our lives.”
Competence produces confidence, and confidence produces leadership.
“The single most exciting thing you encounter in government is competence, because it’s so rare.” —Daniel Patrick Moynihan
“I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way.” —John Paul Jones
On September 23, 1779, American naval officer John Paul Jones commanded the warship Le Bonhomme Richard off the northeast coast of England. There he encountered a British merchant convoy escorted by the royal warship Serapis. The British ship attacked the Richard, pounding the American ship with forty-four guns roaring.
Though the Richard‘s hull was riddled with holes, Jones sent his ship straight into the enemy fire, colliding with Serapis. He ordered his men to lash the Richard‘s bowsprit to the British ship’s mizzenmast. Both ships continued blazing away at point-blank range. The British commander, Richard Pearson, demanded Jones’ surrender.
Jones later recalled, “I answered him in the most determined negative.” His exact words are unknown, but these defiant words are attributed to him: “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Minutes later, one of the American shots found its mark, touching off an explosion aboard the Serapis. As a result, the British commander Pearson surrendered to John Paul Jones. Though Le Bonhomme Richard sank minutes later, Jones and his crew seized the Serapis as their prize. The story of John Paul Jones entered history as a great example of the mighty power of bold leadership.
“One of the few positive aspects of crises is that one bold leader can make a big difference.” —John Stanton
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” —T. S. Eliot
Harold Hamm was born the son of Oklahoma sharecroppers. Growing up poor amid an Oklahoma oil boom, Hamm saw oilmen pumping enormous wealth out of the ground. The lure of “black gold” fired his imagination.
Hamm completed high school but couldn’t afford college, so he went into the oil business. “I started by cleaning oil sludge out of tanker trucks and learning the business from the bottom up,” he recalled. With borrowed money, he started his own wildcat drilling operation in 1967, sinking risky wells in unproven geological formations. The risk paid off, producing six million barrels of oil.[i]
He went to college, studied geology and business administration, and continued building his company. A few years ago, he became convinced that the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana was saturated with oil. His company, Continental Resources, invented many environmentally friendly technologies for finding oil and extracting it from the shale.
Drilling in the Bakken was another risky Harold Hamm wildcat operation—but it paid off. Today, many oil companies drill in the Bakken, which has proved to be the richest oilfield in the lower forty-eight states.
Starting with one truck and the willingness take bold risks, Harold Hamm created an $8 billion energy empire—and single-handedly helped secure America’s energy future.
“Be bold, be bold, and everywhere be bold.” ― Herbert Spencer
[i] Scott Hennen, Grass Roots: A Commonsense Action Agenda for America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011), 95-96.
“Every action and feeling is preceded by a thought.” —James Allen, As a Man Thinketh (1902)
Over the years, Investor’s Business Daily has made an intensive study of successful leaders from many fields of endeavor. From that study, the IBD editors have distilled ten traits that all successful people have in common. They are (in slightly condensed form):
1. How You Think Is Everything: Be positive and focus on success, not failure.
2. Decide On Your True Dreams and Goals: Write down your goals, then have a written plan for achieving them.
3. Take Action: Dreams minus action equals daydreams. Just do it.
4. Never Stop Learning: Keep reading, studying, training, and learning.
5. Be Persistent and Work Hard: Refuse to give up.
6. Learn to Analyze Details: To make good decisions, get all the facts.
7. Focus Your Time and Money: Don’t let people pull you off-course.
8. Don’t Be Afraid to Innovate: Dare to be different.
9. Deal with People Effectively: Practice communication and people skills.
10. Be Honest and Dependable: If you aren’t, numbers 1 through 9 won’t matter.[i]
Great leaders are positive, focused, goal-oriented people who think clearly, act boldly, speak honestly, and never give up. Build these habits of thinking and acting into your daily leadership life and you can’t help but succeed.
“If a leader demonstrates competency, genuine concern for others, and admirable character, people will follow.” —J. Richard Chase
[i] Investor’s Business Daily, “IBD’s 10 Secrets to Success,” Purdue University, College of Consumer and Family Sciences, May 8, 2005.
“Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.” —Phillips Brooks
James Hackett, CEO of the Steelcase furniture company, told an interviewer that great leaders possess a sense of self-understanding that comes from integrity. “That’s what people look for and respect and want to follow,” Hackett said, adding that his predecessor Bob Pew once told him, “If you want to lead others, you’ve got to have their trust, and you can’t have their trust without integrity.”
Hackett also learned integrity while playing for legendary Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler. He recalls a story Schembechler told about his dad taking the fireman’s exam. Bo’s father lost the job to a man who cheated. Young Bo asked, “Why didn’t you tell them the other guy cheated?” His father replied, “It wasn’t my job to tell them.” Bo asked, “Why didn’t you cheat?” His dad said, “Who wants to win by cheating?”
Hackett often talks to young people about integrity. “I tell them you almost have to practice for those moments when your integrity might be tested,” he says. Picture situations where doing right might get you fired—and no one would know if you did wrong. Practice making the honest choice.[i]
Mental practice conditions you to maintain your integrity in real-life crises. To truly understand yourself, be a leader of integrity.
“You can fake virtue for an audience. You can’t fake it in your own eyes.” —Ayn Rand