thoughts. They learn to be more active and creative in the face of failure.

SP: Do you feel there is a relation- ship between the way we explain success and failure and our future sales productivity? DR. SELIGMAN: I think the rela- tionship is pretty direct. I think that those salespeople who have ad- opted an optimistic style for dealing with negative events will make the next call faster, they are going to be more creative on the next call, and they are going to sell more.

SP: They learn to recover more quickly.

DR. SELIGMAN: Yes. Selling is a very special profession. We have test- ed many different groups, from West Point students to Olympic athletes. Selling is unique simply because you are exposed to a lot of nos. Therefore, only a very special group of people is going to do well in it.

SP: Do you feel salespeople handi- cap themselves more through mak- ing a mistake, or more through the irrational explanation following the mistake?

DR. SELIGMAN: I think it is the explanation.

SP: Have you ever been out on actual sales calls? DR. SELIGMAN: Yes. When my father had his stroke, I spent the next five years selling magazines in upstate New York. At age 16, I was making more money than I did until I was a full professor. I think there are two aspects to selling. The first are the technical mistakes – and your common sales training courses can help you with that. But your training, your experience, and your talent can only go so far. Where do you learn to think about the causes of your mistakes? That’s a second, special kind of skill. It is a learnable skill most people in selling don’t have.


Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.


SP: So you are saying that, if you learn that skill, you can increase your sales further. DR. SELIGMAN: Yes.

SP: Do you feel that the skill of explaining failure ultimately deter- mines our chances for achieving success?

DR. SELIGMAN: It puts the upper limit on your talent and ability. You can have the talent of Mozart, but, if you believe that you are no good at composing music, you are not going to do anything.

SP: What is the difference between positive thinking and learned opti- mism?

DR. SELIGMAN: There are two ba- sic differences. When I think of your usual positive thinking or motivation speech, I think of it as a temporary pumping up. It gives you a boost, but you don’t internalize things. You have to come back for another injection. The cognitive therapy techniques involved in learning opti- mistic explanatory styles represent a new set of skills. They stay with you all the time.

SP: Dan Oran, the president of your sales selection and training compa- ny, Foresight Inc., said that positive thinking is statement based, while cognitive therapy is question based. DR. SELIGMAN: That’s a fair as- sessment. There has been a lot of research to document the effec- tiveness of cognitive therapy. For instance, in the treatment of depres- sion, medication works about 70 to 80 percent of the time. It works pretty well as long as you keep

taking it. Once you are off, you run as much risk of relapse as if you never had it. You are going to get depressed again. Cognitive therapy has about the same effect in reliev- ing depression, but, once you learn the techniques, you acquire a skill for dealing with failure, defeat, and mistakes that you will always carry with you. So, when you get defeated again, you don’t have to run off to a doctor to get pumped up again. The basic question you need to ask yourself is, do I want a temporary or a permanent solution?

SP: Your research shows that our expectations determine our level of success. What contributes to the development of our expectations? DR. SELIGMAN: I think that there are two basic constraints on our expectations. The main one is real- ity – and reality can be either pretty grim or pretty bright. Then, on top of that, we’ve got our explanatory style. In other words, the way we explain an event from the inside de- termines our expectations. Reality is what constrains us from the outside.

SP: You are a scientist and you mea- sure things a little bit more carefully than the average person. What is your measure of success? DR. SELIGMAN: For me there are two kinds of successes that really matter. One is the “changing the world” success; the other is find- ing gratifying successes in everyday life – the small challenges. I have to admit that it appeals to me that you need to be doing something to make the world a better place than the world you entered. 


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