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Learning to be a rich "optionist"

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If you can change the way you frame bad events like rejection, you can change your future. Founder of positive psychology and author of Learned Optimism Martin Seligman discovered this in the mid-1980s when he met MetLife president John Creeden. Creeden’s company was spending millions recruiting and training agents only to lose half of them each year.

Seligman convinced Creeden to hire agents who had scored just below the success threshold on the career profile test, the “CP,” which predicts insurance agent success. But, Seligman insisted, they had to also score high on an optimism test given by Seligman. The results were astounding: The special recruits outsold those who had passed the CP by 21 percent in their first year and 57 percent in their second — all because of the way they framed rejection.

What is this attribute that differentiates top advisors from the merely average? It’s an emotional intelligence that measures how well a person can find his or her way out of adverse conditions and pursue options. Think of them as “optionists.” In developing optimism, there are the two main factors to consider: permanence and pervasiveness.


When rejection happens repeatedly, it’s easy to fall into a pessimistic frame of mind. A pessimist says, “I’m never going to make my quota.” An optimist says, “I’m going to miss my quota this quarter.” The differences are subtle but powerful. If you actually believed that you would “never” make your quota, you might become demoralized and eventually give up. The optimist, on the other hand, displays the hallmark of optimism: hope. They explain their situation as short term rather than permanent.

Seligman also found that optimists limit bad events. When met with rejection, the optimist says, “That prospect didn’t want annuities today.” The pessimist says, “No one is buying annuities.” Optimists explain bad events as limited to specific situations; while pessimists tend to believe that the sky is falling with a single drop of rain.
Seligman discovered that if people change the way they frame bad events, they change their reaction to them and behave in more positive ways. There are three simple ways to change negative framing:

  1. Question your belief’s truth. Is it really true that no one is buying annuities?
  2. Question your belief’s usefulness. How is this going to help me sell more annuities?
  3. Question your belief’s implications. If it is true that annuities are a thing of the past, is there something else that can take their place?

When you behave like an optimist you look for options. You automatically turn the car around when you find yourself in a cul-de-sac. And then drive straight to the bank to make a deposit. Now that’s a pretty good option!

Scott Halford is president of Denver-based
Complete Intelligence LLC. Responses and questions can be sent to [email protected].