Content note: animated gifs
I originally wrote this post in early 2020.
At that point, I had heard of coronavirus, but people were dismissing whispers about lockdowns.
More recently, here in mid-2022, I was reading the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Amelia and Emily Nagoski, and I was struck by their chapter on “persistence.”
The perspective they present there is much more nuanced and thoroughly researched than my blog post here (which makes sense, because they wrote a whole book), but I’ll go ahead and admit that I was chuffed to see a well-rounded argument by people I respect with some thematic parallels to my burned-out thoughts from two years ago.
Back in the before-times, I was feeling especially salty about this featured quote because I had just received a long-overdue confirmation of rejection for a job that I was extraordinarily confident about my ability to perform, that I was ridiculously prepared for, that I was eminently qualified for, and for which I made an exceptionally strong argument for myself for in both preliminary and final interview stages.
I also received my poorly-handled rejection notification the day after Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 presidential race.
It wasn’t a great day to see an inspirational quote about attitude.
My attitude had varied over the months of the academic job application and interview process, but overall, I remained uncharacteristically positive.
I mean, I was still fundamentally me.
Of course I experienced bouts of doubt and anxiety.
But for once, my professional self-doubt felt like a lie that could be countered with evidence.
When I saw the original advertisement for the position, I thought, “Well, that’s me. I can do all of that, and I can do it well.”
(It was far more common for me to read the bulleted Preferred Qualifications list and feel great about three of them, okay about four or five, ambivalent about a couple, and terrified by at least one.)
When I started pulling my materials together, I told myself, “I will turn in an application that they can’t ignore. They may not actually contact me for an interview, because that’s out of my hands, but by god, they’ll have to work hard to justify keeping me out of the running if that’s the case.”
And they contacted me pretty promptly to schedule an interview.
And when I prepared for the interview, I told myself, “I will not give them any reason to second-guess choosing my application, and by god, they’ll have to sweat if they don’t put me through to the next round.”
And I made it to the next round.
Every other time I had a campus visit, I’d leaned into a “fake it ’til you make it” approach to get me through, but this time, I just felt a qualified colleague.
It would be unfair for me to resent the fact that another person existed with pertinent qualifications, which they proceeded to show off to good advantage in their own interview. The person who got the job was presumably confident, prepared, and qualified, and capable of making a strong argument on their own behalf.
Awareness of this fact didn’t do much to alleviate the sting.
So, back to William James (and those who like to quote him out of context):
How does “attitude at the beginning” really come into play when we arrive at an unsuccessful outcome?
I admit that I threw myself a big old pity party when I got the rejection, and I stand by that. Pretending not to be bitter will only exacerbate bitterness.
I also admit that my above question originally arose from a place of resentment and frustration.
But once the emotional lava has hardened, the issue still stands: what’s the connection between attitude and success?
The quote in this macro is being used in service of this broader Power of Positivity enterprise that blames individuals’ thought patterns for individual failures (or successes), rather than engaging more meaningfully with the social infrastructures that reinforce patterns of success (or failure).
If we’re looking to define an attitude that helps to determine success, it seems like confidence, persistence, and resilience are good personal qualities to have, eh?
I don’t know Elizabeth Warren personally, and I’m in no position to ever speak meaningfully about her mental or emotional state.
But at least in terms of her public image, she remained engaged, forward-thinking, and determined. She shows it when she’s angry, but she remains broadly “positive,” and does not appear unconfident or underprepared.
Elizabeth Warren’s own attitude wasn’t the problem with her campaign. Her attitude was demonstrably on point.
Of course she’ll persist. Of course she’ll be resilient. Of course she isn’t going to stop working altogether. She knows the drill. She’ll stay on her feet.
I’ve focused a lot on that word “attitude” in the original macro, but here I’ll start folding in that idea of “successful outcome.”
A “successful outcome” for a job interview – both at the local and national level – is a job offer.
That’s what it looks like your own attitude is mirrored by that of a larger system (which may or may not be rigged in your favor).
Now, I promise that I know that “not achieving a desired outcome” is not the same thing as either “failure” or “total lack of institutional support.”
When multiple people are competing for only one position, it’s obviously not possible for everyone to “succeed” in the sense outlined above, and so of course there’s going to be disappointment somewhere.
Toxic Positivity encourages us to elevate the lesson at the expense of acknowledging the disappointment, though.
Sure, I get to practice resilience this way, and I can identify opportunities for growth, but “someone else got the job” still wasn’t a “successful outcome” for me. (Or Elizabeth Warren.)
It’s a reasonable outcome.
It’s a manageable outcome.
It’s not a total failure, and it’s not the end of the world.
I’ll persist. I’ll be resilient. I won’t stop altogether. I know the drill. I’ll stay on my feet.
We can’t all have successful outcomes all the time, and that’s normal.
Now, I think that’s a reasonable attitude to have at the disappointing conclusion of a difficult task.
Cognitively, I know that this is my baseline “actual” attitude, even though I may struggle to stick with it as circumstance and emotions fluctuate.
This “attitude determines outcome” framing doesn’t seem to encourage a healthy, balanced response to unsuccessful outcomes, but then again, what do I know from healthy?
There are a couple of ways to justify this relationship between “attitude determines outcome” and what “a successful outcome” actually looks like compared to an “unsuccessful” one.
1) Play with the definition of “attitude.” If you have an unsuccessful outcome (e.g., not getting the job, not winning the race, not nailing the performance, etc.), it must be because your initial attitude wasn’t truly what was needed for that particular kind of success in that particular situation. Your attitude was always the problem, rather than anything circumstantial, and you need to try harder to have a more situationally-appropriate attitude if you want to achieve your goals. (Okay, I’ve been a bit flippant there, but then again I never promised not to be.)
2) Play with the definition of “success.” If you don’t achieve your desired outcome (the job, the medal, the gig, etc.), it’s okay to retrofit your idea of success to accommodate whatever actually happened. That sounds a lot like the ol’ “Everyone’s a winner” schtick that never made anyone feel any better in elementary school.
“You succeeded because you tried.”
(Don’t tell Yoda.)
Now, I’ve offered several either/ors here, and you know how I feel about binaries.
Of course success is not an absolute binary, and it’s reductive to treat most outcomes as “SUCCESS” vs. “FAILURE” with nothing in between.
At the same time, of course it’s disingenuous to act like “NOT SUCCESS” has so much overlap with “SUCCESS” that the difference is functionally negligible.
I have a background in social science research, but I’ve really only dabbled in psychology. I’ve spent more time engaging with popular psychology resources than digging into the academic theory and history of the discipline.
So I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure who William James was when I initially snagged this screenshot.
In fact, when I started writing, I was thinking of Henry James, and I was all ready to lay into him.
Wrong James, though.
It turns out that William James is often referred to as “the father of American psychology.”
The history of the philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, as James defined it and as it has since evolved, wasn’t exactly light reading, and I’ll be upfront about the fact that I just don’t feel like summarizing it here.
And at any rate, this blog isn’t a great space to develop a lengthy and well-researched essay on the history of ideological debates that have influenced contemporary psychological practice. I’m just here to pick apart their outcomes.
I liked the sound of “pragmatism,” though, so I considered the possibility that his quotable quote was pulled from a context that could offer some illumination.
I briefly searched for that original context.
Early efforts to identify the source beyond the author’s name were fruitless. This sentence has been macroed a LOT:
I have just a couple highlights to bring in from my very brief historical review.
“Pragmatism” as a movement has been paraphrased as “a return to common sense.”
Well, that sounds less promising. Naturally, I wondered whose senses were considered to be most common, and naturally, I have some hunches, William James, but we’ll table that for now.
(*cough* abled-ish financially secure cis het white dudes who were likely to have been raised with broadly Christian values if not beliefs *cough*)
I didn’t find the original context, but I came across another James quote that seems like a helpful expansion: “a belief can be made true by the fact that holding it contributes to our happiness and fulfillment.”
I.e., “fake it ’til you make it.”
It seems a little on the nose to me that the “father of American psychology” advocated for magical thinking that he preferred to rebrand as “pragmatism.”
Admittedly, I’ve presented a judgement about an influential figure and the significance of his entire career based on just a couple of Google searches and the brief perusal of a few articles. I stand 100% ready to be educated by the perspectives of those more familiar with his work (as I pretend that multiple people with relevant and informed opinions are reading this blog).
Shortly after writing an early draft of this post, I read a chapter from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America that expanded more on the historical context that led to the emergence of William James’ psychological philosophy. In short:
it seems like James approached the then-emerging pseudoscientific fad known as “new thinking” (the idea that people could manifest things simply by thinking about them) with a reasonable degree of skepticism.
His original motivation seems to have been practical enough. I respect anyone who is driven by a desire to disprove popular bullshit; yet the outcome has led to terribly impractical results (i.e., more people in contemporary society who lump his eventual admission that “thinking positive thoughts can in some cases seem to correlate with positive outcomes” into the same kind of magical thinking he was contesting in the first place).
So in that sense, his optimistic attitude at the outset does not seem to have resulted in a particularly successful outcome for his theories.
I write a lot here about what I don’t believe and not as much about what I do believe.
I want to stress that I believe deeply in the value of acceptance.
I can and always will learn from disappointment.
I know my Bob Ross, y’all.
I absolutely appreciate the value of being able to identify positive potential after a negative situation has unfolded.
I comprehend and respect the idea that the anticipation of success can have benefits that the anticipation of failure may not.
I recognize the ways in which negative thinking can perpetuate cycles of self-sabotage.
Attitudes don’t exist in vacuums.
Having a good attitude IN A SYSTEM THAT PRIVILEGES AND PRIORITIZES YOUR ABILITY TO MAINTAIN THE IDEA THAT YOUR OWN ATTITUDE IS THE BEST ONE will, indeed, probably encourage successful outcomes.
You can have the best damn attitude in the world, but that’s not the primary thing determining your success. It just helps.
Know your strengths, know your limits, and know your value. That’s in your control.
But also know that there are plenty of folks out there who want you to be fully responsible for the “failures” that you encounter, just so that they can justify their own relative comfort and “success.”
I feel like this post turned out more ranty than usual. That’s not what I planned for when I started, but that’s where it ended up.
Unintended and unexpected outcomes are normal and fine.
It is possible to turn your mistakes into birds.
But that doesn’t have to mean that your attitude was always going to lay eggs in the first place.
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