Learned Optimism

In a previous post I mentioned that science didn’t know much about how to teach or grow optimism. I was wrong about that – quite a bit is known, actually. After I wrote that post I became more interested in how to learn optimism, and came across Martin Seligman’s great book on the subject, Learned Optimism.

This book is the product of Seligman’s many years of scientific research on optimism – what it is and how to learn it. There are scientifically studied ways to learn optimism. In the book Seligman is critical of therapy (one of my recommendations in the last blog post). He’s not critical of therapy because it is ineffective – indeed, he says it is quite effective in helping people be optimistic. But it can never be available to millions of people just because there just aren’t enough therapists to go around. That is a compelling argument.

So if therapy is out for most people, then what’s in? Techniques that you can learn and practice on your own. So meditation counts (although he doesn’t talk about it in the book). The main technique Seligman focuses on in this book is called “ABCDE”:

  • Adversity – being aware of the situation or event which triggers your pessimism.
  • Belief – noticing how you interpret the adversity
  • Consequences – being aware of what you did, how you acted or behaved, and how you felt
  • Disputation – making an effort to argue with yourself and dispute your beliefs – redeploying your attention
  • Energization – noticing the outcome or effect of redirecting one’s thoughts and attention

The idea behind this technique is to notice when you are experiencing adversity, what your beliefs about it are, and how you feel and act because of that. That’s the noticing part. Then you can take some distance from those beliefs and stories about the adversity, and argue with yourself about them – in other words, deploy some rationality and tear down the negative judgements, thoughts, and beliefs. The thoughts often lose a lot of their power when we see that they may not be rational or valid. Once they have lost some power, we aren’t so paralyzed by them, we often feel better, and can frequently begin to take positive action.

It sounds almost too simple to work, but it has been extensively taught and studied, and it is effective. It can be learned quickly, and practiced in daily life when those critical voices come up.

I’d also add, meditation enhances its effectiveness, because meditation helps one develop the “watcher” part of our mind that has a little bit of distance from our thoughts, and can see what’s happening without getting caught up in it so much. One way to look at meditation is that it is made up of awareness and mindfulness. Knowing what’s happening is awareness, key to the first three steps. Mindfulness is coming back to the breath or the present moment, being able to return and place our mind on what we want. In this technique, that’s the disputation, and the practice of being able to see and feel the results. Meditation also helps in developing self-compassion which can help add warmth, connection, and a larger perspective to the noticing and disputation.

The book goes into quite a bit of detail about how to effectively dispute one’s own inner voices. Good questions to ask are:

  • Evidence? – What is the evidence for this belief or story?
  • Alternatives? – Are there alternative explanations?
  • Implications? – Can I decatastrophize the story by seeing if the implications are exaggerated?
  • Usefulness? – Is it constructive to hold this belief or see the story as valid?

There’s quite a bit more I could say about this book – Seligman covers what optimism and pessimism are made of, optimism and children, optimism on teams and at work, and the relationship between optimism and depression. I’ll have to save those topics for other posts. I found this book interesting and I recommend it if you’re interested in optimism, how to become optimistic, or how to teach it as a skill.

(Available from Amazon)

I’m Hiring

I’m hiring for two software developer positions:

We’re a fast-growing, fun, high-performance team working on some interesting large-scale machine learning applications. We use Scrum and Extreme Programming methodologies, Linux and Open Source software (and we contribute back also), and know that it’s creativity that matters, not the number of lines of code, so we take a humanistic, positive psychology-based approach to work. If you’re interested in breaking the bounds of what’s possible in terms of creativity and personal growth, we want to know you!

Both these positions report to me. You’d be joining a team of 5 other developers, and an engineering organization of about 15 total. If you like what you see on these pages, or over on Live In Greatness, I would love to hear from you. We also have more positions open: MetaBrite Careers page, or if you don’t see one that fits, but you’re still interested, get in touch anyway! You can email me at adam@metabrite.com, or use my personal email found on the About page.

These jobs are located in downtown Seattle. Here’s the MetaBrite website.

You Are Living in a Poem

“You are living in a poem,” says poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

“What do you mean, we’re living in a poem?” Or, “When? All the time, or just when someone talks about poetry?” And I’d say, “No, when you think, when you’re in a very quiet place, when you’re remembering, when you’re savoring an image, when you’re allowing your mind calmly to leap from one thought to another, that’s a poem. That’s what a poem does.”

From the wonderful and optimistic interview Your Life Is a Poem with Naomi Shihab Nye at On Being.


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye, available in the book Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. Or hear her read the poem: Kindness.

(via Stacy Lewis)

Change Backtick to Escape Key for MacBook Pro with Touchbar

MacBook Pro with Touchbar - ESC key closeupMy work computer is a new MacBook Pro. It’s great except one thing – it has a Touchbar, and that means there’s no physical Escape key. I’m a vim user and so have been feeling pain about that, since the Escape key is essential to using vim.

Then I discovered Karabiner Elements. It allows you to make physical keys emit whatever keycodes you want, so can change any key, even modifier keys like Escape, in all applications. So I could change Command to Escape. Now I could use vim. But I wanted something better – I wanted a physical Escape key in roughly the same position as older Macs. Could I change the Backtick key to Escape?

Yes. Here’s a Karabiner Elements complex modification file that will change Backtick (grave accent) to Escape; make Option-Backtick into Backtick; Shift-Backtick into Tilde (as usual); and make Command-Backtick work as normal. If you download Karabiner Elements, install, and run it, you can use the following button to install the modification. After installing, you will need to enable it.

Import “Change Backtick To Escape Complex Modification” Into Karabiner Elements

Now I’m totally happy with this laptop. I have a Touchbar and a physical Escape key.

(Update: this has been merged into KE-complex_modifications master branch, direct link to json file or source code on Github)

The First White President

Great article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in October’s Atlantic Monthly: The First White President. Brilliant and intelligent. It begins:

It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.


I made a grief resources page.

The Importance of Psychological Safety on Teams

Great article today on the importance of psychological safety on teams: Engineering a Culture of Psychological Safety, via Martin Fowler:

Teams without psychological safety underperform. Here are the danger signs and routes to improve.

From the article:

When discussing failures, people need to feel safe to share all relevant information, with the understanding that they will be judged not on how they fail, but how their handling of failures improved the team, their product and the organization as a whole. Teams with operational responsibilities need to come together and discuss outages and process failures. It’s essential to approach these as fun learning opportunities, not root-cause obsessed witch-hunts.

My ex-boss Casey used to say, “It’s my policy that you made the right decision. It’s more important to make decisions than be perfect. We may make another decision based on new information, but you will never be blamed for making a decision.” That really helped me feel safe. And it’s become my policy now too.

Optimism as a Learned Skill

sunriseI was talking with a colleague about optimism lately – he commented that he tends to see the worst case scenarios for each new situation. I said I thought optimism is a learned skill.

We were working on a piece of software together and got stuck – we could not see a way to make it work, to accomplish our goals. Right now this is a key piece of software for our company, since the way it is made currently made limits our growth. Our job was to undo this limitation. But we got stuck and couldn’t see a way out.

We were both dissatisfied by this – unhappy with the current mess we were in and unhappy with our limited ability to untangle it. My friend was sad about this and pessimistic about the outcome. But he was also mad, and his anger had dignity – he wanted things to be better, which is a great strength. The fact he was expressing his anger let me feel my frustration and anger too.

I was frustrated, but I was also excited. I thought we were about to learn something new and cool. That often happens when we get stuck, especially in software. One of the essential characteristics of software development is that we are always at a growth edge, working on unknown problems that stretch us. Once we solve a problem, if we encounter a similar one, we can just copy the solution. Hence we’re always working on new things.

So frustration often feels like dignity energy to me – being mad can give us the energy to overcome our ignorance and create something new.

And indeed that was what happened – we went home for the night letting our subconscious minds work on the problem, and in the morning came in and asked for help. The clues came from several people – one person taught us a lot about the design of the software, so we could have a larger vision, and two others helped us narrow our problem down and understand precisely what our company needed from us. And then we were able to find an elegant solution.

The mess and frustration did lead to a breakthrough.

hope written on a hand

So what exactly is optimism? I looked it up in Seligman and Peterson’s Handbook of Character Strengths and Virtues, my main reference for Positive-Psychology-based personal growth. Optimism is a virtue of Transcendence, closely allied with hope. It seems to have several components:

  • goals – approaching life in a goal-oriented way
  • pathways – goal planning, being able to imagine routes to reach the goals
  • agency – goal motivation, being motivated to achieve goals

In other words, hope was defined as the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways…

[I]ndividuals who are able to realize these three components and develop a belief in their ability are hopeful people who can establish clear goals, imagine multiple workable pathways toward those goals, and persevere, even when obstacles get in their way. (Hope on Wikipedia)

Unfortunately Seligman and Peterson say science doesn’t know how to teach or grow optimism. (Update: Actually Seligman has done a lot of scientific study on teaching optimism.) But I think we can. So how do we do it? Here are some things that work for me:

The first two are things you can practice. Practice is a way to invite things into your life, to give them space. My friend and mentor Jim McCarthy says about inviting, “A want is a baby have.”

The third one is about getting to know yourself better, getting to know other people better, developing intimacy, and letting their qualities and strengths rub off on you. And the last two, meditating and seeing a therapist, are both practices and ways of being intimate with yourself. They let your own inner strengths shine out, which I find helps me be more resilient and hopeful about life. Optionally if you like reading, learning about positive psychology (the science of psychological wellness) can give you a bigger picture. I’ll write more about positive psychology here soon.

But how do those things work? That’s a topic for another blog post. Or maybe the how doesn’t matter. If you want more optimism, I invite you to try some of these out. And if you have other things that work for you, I’d like to hear about them.

Love Dogs

One night a man was crying,
“Allah, Allah!”

His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
“So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer for that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage,
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express
is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs no one knows the names of.
Give your life to be one of them.

Jellaludin Rumi,
translated by Coleman Barks, available in the book Essential Rumi