Learned Optimism – Review


I just finished reading Learned Optimism by Martin E. P. Seligman. I forget which blog pointed me to this book, but it caught my interest because I’ve always been depressed (or at least extremely pessimistic) and because everything I’ve read about sports psychology points to the importance of optimism in sports performance.

  • In The New Toughness Training for Sports, James Loehr talks about how important it is to maintain a positive emotional state and to recover quickly from mistakes.
  • In Mind Gym, the other book everyone should read, Gary Mack talks about the importance of having a good self image (“No one can out-perform their self image.”).

Learned Optimism spells out the difference between negative and positive thinking better than anything else I’ve read. I’d definitely recommend it if you suspect  your own pessimism is holding you back from succeeding in your sport or in life in general. The book documents the trajectory of Seligman’s research, from helpless lab rats to depressed human beings, and concludes with a method for treating pessimism and becoming habitually more optimistic.

I only have space to review the book, but in the next post I’m going to get into how this connects to mental toughness. I’m going to use a popular webcomic as a point of reference. Get excited!

Review of the Book

Seligman found that lab rats could be taught to be helpless. He discovered that humans, too, could be taught to be helpless in exactly the same way. Something interesting, though: a minority of both lab animals and humans were stubborn optimists, refusing to becoming helpless. The principal difference between people who become helpless and those who don’t is the way they perceive and describe adversity. The idea is that misfortunes in childhood and adolescence teach some of us to be helpless, and the result is pessimism or worse, depression.

Seligman then describes his technique for getting pessimists to see their lives the  way optimists do. This therapy cures people of clinical depression more effectively than drugs do. He goes a step further, asserting that normal, non-depressed people would benefit from being more optimistic.

Explanatory Style

Seligman calls the way people perceive and describe their lives their “explanatory style.” Changing a pessimist’s explanatory style to one that’s more optimistic simply involves getting the pessimist to dispute their pessimistic inner monologue. There are three dimensions to a person’s explanatory style.

  • Permanence: The pessimist believes his or her problems will last forever and that the good times are flukes. The optimist sees problems as temporary and fleeting.
  • Pervasiveness: The pessimist believes a given misfortune will affect his or her whole life. The optimist sees any setback as an isolated event.
  • Personalization: The pessimist blames himself  for his problems. Optimists blame others or circumstances in general. Likewise, pessimists never credit themselves for their successes, while optimists always credit themselves.

For example, if you’re a pessimist and you get into an argument with a loved one, you’ll blame yourself, you’ll believe the problem is going to last forever and you’ll predict the quality of your whole life will suffer as a result. An optimist would blame an external cause (their partner or something else), see the problem as temporary, and wouldn’t expect it to affect any other part of their life.

When to stop blaming ourselves?

The most interesting dimension is definitely personalization. This is where things get a little weird: everyone distorts reality in their head to fit their worldview. Your interpretation of reality is crucial – when you choose to blame something other than yourself for your misfortunes, you are literally bending the fabric of reality itself to keep yourself healthy.

Actually, if you’re a pessimist, reality is usually on your side. Pessimists reach to absurd conclusions to blame themselves for their problems. For example, they’ll blame themselves when it rains on a picnic they put together. Even so, Seligman and other researchers have found that pessimists see reality more clearly than optimists, especially when assessing themselves.

There’s obviously a question here of  responsibility. For myself, I’ve always assumed that being hard on myself was part of my credibility, but I have definitely been going overboard with it my whole life. How much is too much when you stop blaming yourself for your misfortunes? I’ll get into this later.


Ditch the girlfriend

Figure 1: A shrew.

Figure 1: A shrew.

Here’s a good tip for training if you want to stay in the game for the long haul: Ditch the ball and chain. Believe me, if you stay committed to your training while trying to keep a woman happy, it will only end in tears.

Let me take a step back, and get you started again with a little story I’ve been meaning to tell.

I was leaving the gym one night a while ago when I saw something really terrifying. I heard it before I saw it: A sharp exclamation like the short, sharp squeak of a car’s tires before the fatal car crash.

“Hurry up!”

It was an overweight woman with salon hair and designer clothes. She had hostages: a fat skinny guy, his dingy tshirt tucked into a pair of tapered jeans. Her nondescript children scurried past and made for the minivan. Weirdly, despite the harsh tone toward her children, the woman’s expression was serene. She exchanged a few words with her husband.

I watched as this woman and her brood made their way from a sports pub next to my school to their Windstar. As they passed the school, the woman’s pet man looked through the window and saw my friends training inside.

“That’s the stuff daddy would like to do,” he said wistfully. His timid words died in the empty night air as quickly as he spoke them. Like a shaman, or a medium, I was the only sentient being to witness this lowly ghoul’s utterance.

“But it’s too expensive,” he said. I looked at his coiffed and well-fed wife. It was almost more than I could bear.

“Get in the car!” the woman shrieked at her children. I realized this is how she always speaks to her kids. I shuddered at this spectacle and climbed into my own car. Maybe being alone isn’t so bad, I thought to myself.

I don’t mean to come off as a misogynist. This was a particularly terrible family, and the fact that this woman was short with her children is really beside the point (except for the part where I’m blaming the woman for everything, but I’m in the middle of apologizing for being a misogynist, so hopefully it will come out in the wash). But just think of this man, and the way he gave up his dream so easily. Think of all the men and women who have given up their dreams, and for what?

The majority of people who fall in love with training in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and then go on to quit do so because of commitments to a significant other. Like ghosts, you see less and less of them until they’re swallowed entirely by domestitude. I have seen this happen a million times. And from all the lingering young men I’ve seen gazing forlornly into our school, trailed by impatient girlfriends, I suspect that many people with an interest in training never even start.

I realize this is a lopsided discussion, gender-wise. I can’t speak for women. The experience of fight training as a woman is so alien that I can’t really comment on it. I’m sure women face the same general problem though.

People seek comfort. We are told that we will find comfort in companionship and in the nesting instinct. Even outside the issue of training, I think most people get together and stay together for entirely the wrong reasons. You should be able to stand on your own two feet, and enter into a relationship with someone else because they provide extra bonus value to you on top of what you’ve already got going on, not because you absolutely cannot live without them. In reality, it seems that people are completely broken pretty much all the time, and they rush into commitments with other people who are likewise all messed up. They become less than the sum of their parts.

This is a terrible outcome!

If you really love what you do, be straight with anyone you meet. From the get-go, let potential long-term partners know that your training is the most important thing to you, and that they shouldn’t take it personally when you’re still devoting most of your time to it years from now. If they’re not okay with this, or if they pretend to be and then try to chip away at your time, then you should let them go as gently as possible. Because instead of respecting you and your goals, they’re trying to convert you into some bizzaro fantasy version of you that they’ve cooked up.

Maybe I’m a crazy person. I’m probably a crazy person. What normal person  devotes his life to man-hugging and punch-kicking when there’s no paycheck in it? But, to be fair, what girl would want to be involved with this kind of guy?

Look at it this way: Imagine the person you want to be five years from now. Will you look back and say “Thank god I gave into my partner’s desire and gave up my dream of training and becoming really good at something. I’m so comfortable now!” Or, will you say “Thank god I stuck to my guns and watched that girl walk away. I’m super good at jiu jitsu now!”

It’s up to you.

Bollard story is online!

I wrote a story about my journey from discovering Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to my debut MMA fight for The Bollard, a local monthly paper here in Portland. It’s now online at http://www.thebollard.com/bollard/?p=6262

This was a tough story to write. It’s been a long time since I did a feature story and it’s hard to write about yourself, especially when you know people you look up to are going to read it. Chris Busby, the Bollard’s editor, was really patient with me and provided invaluable help with his edits.

Writing this story took up a lot of time and energy that I’m now hoping to put back into training and updating Seven Breaths more often.


Training has been tough lately.

I went into my fight training with a professional job and a girl I was really into. During the training for my fight, I lost the job, and I got dumped by my girlfriend. I’ve since gotten a job working as a bouncer at a local strip club. It’s actually a fun job, and as an aspiring writer you can’t deny the life experience I’m going to get into. But it’s still quite a changeup from the stability I enjoyed a few months ago.

Switching to the night shift has been hard. I’ve physically adjusted to sleeping different hours, for the most part (and I’ve light-proofed my room, thanks to the good advice of a dear friend!), but I still always feel like I’ve gotten a late start on every day, and in general, I’m all out of sorts. I am a forgetful person by nature and when I get thrown out of a routine things get wacky. My experience today was a great example.

I had intended to go into the gym early and leave late, but I crashed hard right away. I decided to sit through live training and take a beginner’s class, but instead went home and took a nap . On the way home, I realized I had only eaten some yogurt and trail mix before training.I grabbed some Chinese food on the way home, scarfed it down like a dog, and crashed landed on my bed, falling asleep immediately.

All this is sort of scary – I’m disappointed that I’m not getting as much training as I’d like to, and I’m worried I’m not going to make enough money to make ends meet. But I’m going to hang tough and see where things go before I do anything drastic.