Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I know I'm not perfect, I just think I am

My sister, who works in human resources, was recently talking about some of the interview questions she asks prospective employees. One I thought particularly interesting was, "Tell us about a mistake you've made and how you handled that." As she talked about the answers she had gotten from a few recent interviewees, I found myself wondering how I would answer that particular question. It seems obvious that the 'right' answer is NOT, "Hmmm, I can't think of any", and yet, I honestly couldn't think of any example I might relate in a job interview (I'm the first to admit that I could go on for days about the mistakes I've made with guys I've dated but I'm assuming that's not the kind of mistake she was asking about). I'm not saying I'm perfect - I think it's more that I have a way of 're-writing history' in my head. And then I saw an article at GreaterGood about raising optimistic kids and it explained my way of seeing the world much better than I had ever seen it articulated before (I apologize for the somewhat long quote but I think it's worth it):
According to Seligman and other researchers, how optimistic or pessimistic we are amounts to how we explain life’s events, be they good or bad. There are three basic dimensions to an explanation: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. The OPTIMISTIC way of understanding why something GOOD happened would explain:

The cause of what just happened as Permanent (so it will reoccur);
And Pervasive (it will affect many other circumstances, too);
And Personal (I made it happen).

On the other hand, the PESSIMISTIC way of explaining why something GOOD just happened would illustrate that:

The cause of what just happened is Temporary (something short-lived caused it – probably won’t happen again);
And Specific (affecting only this situation);
And Impersonal (I didn’t have anything to do with what happened, other people or the circumstances did).

The reverse is also true when something bad happens. A kid trips on the sidewalk and skins her knee, dirtying her new dress. The pessimist thinks: “I’m so clumsy – I’m always tripping everywhere, and now I look stupid.” The cause of her fall is (1) permanent—she sees it as a personality trait, and therefore it is both (2) pervasive and (3) personal. On the other hand, the optimist thinks: “Dang! Someone oughtta fix that crack in the sidewalk!” She’s thinking that a flaw in the sidewalk, not her own inherent clumsiness, caused her to trip. That crack is (1) temporary; (2) specific to that moment; and (3) impersonal—she had nothing to do with it.

I am not sure how or why, but somewhere way back as a kid, I learned to be a complete optimist when it comes to school and work. When good things happen, I see them as the result of something I did, but when bad things happen, I don't (hence my inability to think of any real mistakes I've made). But what I find even more interesting is that while I think I've always been this way about school and work, it is only recently that I have been able to apply the same mindset to my personal life and social interactions. That is, for most of my life, when bad things have happened in my personal relationships, I have been all too willing to believe that there was something about me, some personality trait (and therefore something pervasive and personal), that was the cause of the problem. It's something I've done a lot of work on in the last few years, and I believe that today, it's probably safe for me to call myself an optimist about my personal life as well, but I just find it interesting that it took me this long to see that this attitude, which comes so naturally in some arenas, can apply just as equally to other areas of my life.

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