It’s churlish to resent something so cheery, but optimism is a pretty stable trait. You’re an optimist or you’re not. You might be optimistic in some situations—situational optimism—and still lack an optimistic disposition.
So if you are not born optimistic, all this good news about optimism is just more bad news. Now a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research tells us about the riches that befall optimists with newly minted MBAs.
We find strong evidence that optimists outperform their peers in the job market. They search less intensively than their peers, and seem to place less importance on the job search process, but nevertheless receive job offers more quickly. Moreover, they are more likely to be promoted in the first two years after graduation, even though they are no more likely than others to still be employed by the same firm.
Using various controls, researchers found that these optimistic MBA students did not go from school to success because of their good looks, charisma, or because they tried harder. (Although another paper on the NBET website tells us that being tall can’t hurt.)
Rather, it was some sort of je ne sais quoi. Something. They couldn’t really say.
You can see why this might be a little discouraging for pessimists. It’s like optimists have been bestowed mystical, magical powers.
But let’s look on the bright side.
The authors of this paper—all business-school guys—toss out some pretty good theories to break down that je ne sais quoi. Their data can’t be crunched to explore the psychological mechanisms of optimists’ better outcomes, so they’re passing it off to psychologists now.
Even so, their speculation gives us all something to think about. If you can’t actually be an optimist, you can at least try reaching into their bag of tricks.
- When asked what they wanted to get out of business school, optimists were much more inclined to say making friends than getting good grades or a good job. So “who you know” might be as important to success as we’ve always heart.
- Positive coping skills might help. “Optimists are more likely to actively engage problems, positively reframe situations, plan a course of action, and rely on social support,” the paper reports. As opposed to brooding and complaining, I guess. Or just figuring that problems are problems and there’s not much you can do about them. Plus, optimists might be better at letting criticism roll off their backs. You can waste an awful lot of time arguing with critics in your head, or getting mired in post-critique self-flagellation.
- Surprisingly, optimists are quicker than pessimists to cut their losses and move on when things aren’t working out. That’s interesting, eh? You would think they would be so blinded by optimism that they wouldn’t see when things aren’t going well. But perhaps it’s pessimists who are blinded–if you think things are always going wrong, you can’t tell when they really are and just keep hanging on.
- In this study, optimists and pessimists were equally likely to change focus during their first year of school, but less likely in their second. “Given our broader results, this particular balance between flexibility and persistence seems to be rewarded in the labor market.” Call it the Kenny Rogers effect: you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Optimists might have a better handle on this.
- And the researchers toss out the possibility of self-fulfilling prophecy, speculating that because optimists expect more of themselves, they live up to their own expectations. Kids tend to live up to their parents’ and teachers’ expectations, maybe the same happens within us.
So, OK. If you weren’t born with an optimistic disposition, you probably won’t be able to develop one. That’s the bad news. But you can pretend and see where that gets you.