Updated on 08.25.08

Is a Positive Attitude Enough?

Trent Hamm

Yesterday, Carrie made a very interesting comment in response to my review of I Don’t Know What I Want, But I Know It’s Not This:

if being happy is a matter of attitude […] then shouldn’t people be able to make anything work […] by simply changing their attitude?

positive attitude by Alex Cheek on Flickr!Carrie’s question strikes right at the heart of a key question about personal development and success: is a positive attitude enough to succeed?

My answer? No, it’s not. It’s a piece of the puzzle, and quite often it can be the piece that turns failure into success, but alone, a positive attitude isn’t enough to make you succeed.

The Elements of Success
I don’t believe that there is any one recipe for success. Instead, I believe success is the result of a combination of a lot of different factors – and not all of them are needed for success. The more factors you have on your side, the more likely you are to succeed, and positive attitude is just one of those factors. Here are seven additional factors that are also important.

Knowledge A strong body of knowledge about the area in which you wish to succeed is often one of the key building blocks of success. You can build this by pushing yourself – read and try out the foundational materials and push yourself into challenging areas to build your knowledge.

Natural talent Some people are born with a predisposition to succeed in certain areas. Find this out for yourself by trying a lot of different activities and seeing what comes easy to you. The things you do with little or no effort that genuinely impress others are likely very near your natural talent, and natural talent combined with a lot of hard work leads to greatness.

Clear goals and planning Much like a trip, it’s a lot easier to get where you want to go if you know where you’re going and spend the time to plan the route you’ll take to get there. Think about what your definition of success exactly is, then identify some of the things that need to be done to help you move towards it.

Passion An intense, burning desire to dig deep into a particular area is often a sign that you’ll find success there. Much as with your natural talent, the way to find your passion is to touch on a lot of different areas and see what resonates for you.

Focus/consistent effort Hard work is another key to finding success. You don’t become a champion without practicing every day. If you want to succeed in a certain area, work hard in that area and go beyond what others are doing – deliberate practice is one big key.

Luck/opportunity Luck and opportunity also play an important role in success – sometimes things just click due to forces outside your control. You can improve your luck by making as many strong personal contacts as you can and sharing what you have to increase their “luck” and “opportunities.”

Cooperation/support Along with luck comes cooperation – the fact that others are working in small ways to help you succeed rather than hinder you. A spouse telling you that you can do this is going to go a lot further than a spouse telling you you’ll never make it.

The Value of a Positive Attitude
That’s not to say that a positive attitude isn’t a key part of the picture – it is. Believing you can succeed and treating the people around you with a positive attitude as well are both important to helping you find the success you want. However, you’ll be hard pressed to find success even if you have the most sunny optimism if you don’t focus in with some hard work, build your knowledge, plan for what you want, and build other foundational pieces of success.

Here are seven ways to build up your positive attitude.

Make lists of your own positive attributes. Better yet, see if you can get a friend to help you by making a list for you – I made a list like this for a friend once upon a time. Then, keep this list somewhere and look at it regularly. Remind yourself that you have a lot of positive attributes, and think about how you can do things so these attributes are accentuated.

Don’t dwell on your failures. We’re all going to fail sometimes. While it’s useful to reflect on them a bit, it’s not healthy to dwell on them. Identify mistakes made, figure out how to correct them, and then move on. You’re not defined by your failures.

Make lists of the successes and positive attributes of those around you – and remind them of those successes when you can. Make a list of all of your regular coworkers and contacts and list a few positive attributes about each one – their knowledge, their insight, their communication skills, their logical skills, and so on. Then, be sure to focus on those skills – the good things they bring to the table – with every interaction.

Avoid thinking negatively about others – if you find yourself going negative, look for their positive attributes. No one’s perfect. Sometimes people are going to rub you the wrong way. Other times, they’ll do something not up to snuff, or they’ll engage in behavior you don’t agree with. Don’t focus on that. Instead, think about their positive attributes – and let them know you see them in a positive way. Knowing that others see you as positive and look up to you is often a big push to get people to act in a positive fashion.

Never speak negatively of others. It’s often tempting in the lunchroom to engage in snarky talk and office politics. Avoid it at all costs if you can. You’re a lot better off interjecting with a “Hey, they’re not all that bad…” and a positive comment than to pile on the negativity. If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything at all.

Surround yourself with positive people. If the people around you are constantly negative in their comments and actions towards others, it’s time to look for a different circle. Focus on building friendships with people that engage you (and others) in positive ways.

Reduce your time spent in activities that make you feel bad about yourself. Then, fill that time with activities that are positive. For example, if you spend hours each night watching television programs that make you feel bad about yourself at night when you climb into bed, look for other forms of entertainment – uplifting and educational programming. Or, turn off the television entirely and engage in exercise or other activities that increase a positive feeling about yourself.

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  1. Solomon says:

    Doing is equally important as thinking.

  2. Carrie says:

    Thank you for this post! Now I don’t feel so bad for not being able to make myself like science despite 10+ years of trying. I’ve been told that it’s all in my head and that I’m not approaching my tech job with the right attitude, but positive thinking alone isn’t going to turn an English major at heart into a tech geek. Thanks for confirming what I’ve known in my gut for quite some time.

  3. Does you worry at all that dwelling on your positive attributes will make you proud? I think it’s good to take an honest look at my skills and abilities, but I think it’s also important to remember that humility(while highly underrated) is a really essential character quality.

    I do agree that having a positive attitude about life is important(there’s usually SOMETHING to be grateful for!). I come by that sort of naturally, though, so I can’t get up on my high horse about it. :p

  4. Tahlia42 says:

    There are some instances, however, where lack of natural ability does not mean one will not be successful. I am a competitive ballroom dancer. NOT A SINGLE STEP has come naturally to me. I have had to work very hard for every improvement and had to retrain my brain.

    Despite how difficult it is for me, it is my passion. I spend 20 hours a week working on it. Now when I hear from my students that of course a step is easy for me, I’m able to honestly tell them that I remember when it seemed impossible to me, too. I am the postchild for what dedication can do.

    There are other careerlines that I have pursued that I have been more of a “natural” at, but they weren’t me. Sometimes one has to try despite the odds.

  5. I think success is a term that muddies the water of the discussion. Is success a one time event that can be reached, or as I would argue it is more of a direction. As you approach a goal the scenery changes and you have new insight and growth that usually make the old ‘goal’ not as applicable as it once was.

    If you really want to get zen…….success is the attitude.

    Just some food for thought.

  6. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    Very good insights there. We hear alot about positive attitude as a key to success, but people often gloss over the other key ingredients. I guess it’s because a positive attitude is a) one of the more intangible things on the list and b) it’s often the most overlooked and c) it’s probably the hardest to mainain consistently.

  7. Matt says:

    Perhaps I’m a cautious optimist or a raging cynic, but the title reminds me of the old quote…

    The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions.

    Optimism is a great thing, but like everything, moderation is paramount.

  8. Shanel Yang says:

    “It is good to dream, but it is better to dream and work. Faith is mighty, but action with faith is mightier. Desiring is helpful, but work and desire are invincible.” – Thomas Robert Gaines

  9. Moneymonk says:

    s a Positive Attitude Enough? NO

    I think if you’re in a job interview and it’s down to you and another person and one have a positive aatitude that will be the tie breaker

    Other than that, you need to come with more than an attitude

  10. You are right, there is more to success than attitude, but if you want to single out one trait that is more important than the rest, it is PERSISTENCE.

    I could get a date with Paris Hilton if I was persistent enough.

    My son could play football for Glasgow Rangers if he is persistent enough.

    You could make a Million pounds if you are persistent enough.

  11. Trent, you have written many beneficial posts, but this one you belted out of the park on the first pitch. I agree with all of your supporting elements. You put a great deal of thought and awareness into this message.

    I like how you are firm in saying hard work is needed to reach your goals. I also like your suggestion of NEVER speaking negatively of another. Your approach of interjecting with a “Hey, they’re not all that bad…” followed by a positive comment might be the best and most simple strategy I think I’ve seen.

    Very nice job, Trent. I hope this becomes one of your most popular posts.

  12. PMA is important but there also has to be some substance

  13. I agree with Trent,

    A positive attitude in and of itself will not gaurantee success but more often than not, “positive thinking” is an overwhelming charcter trait of people who have succeeded!

    It’s easy to say “I’d have positive thoughts too if I was a highly “successful” individual.

    Like the songs says ” you’ve to toaccentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives (or at least not dwell on them)”.

    I would argue that people with negative outlooks are less likely to save and prosper. They are more living in the “now” with little regards for the future.

  14. Todd A says:

    I like the advice of ‘Uncommonadvice’. Look at brilliance in our time, as an example. Michael Jordan, didn’t even make the basketball team in his adolescence. And, certainly, in sixth grade, Einstein was no Einstein. The people looking for easy excellence, will always be looking.

    AND, watching a constant diet of news programming probably won’t help your attitude either !

  15. deepali says:

    One might argue that your attitude isn’t “positive” enough if it doesn’t automatically reflect in your actions… Change your attitude and you change how you react to things, which opens up world of possibility for how you *do* things…

  16. Weather you worship Jesus Christ or you worship Cool Ranch Doritos, having spirituality of some sort in your life can really make a difference when it comes to being successful. At least I think so anyway…

  17. elizabeth says:

    I agree-having a positve attitude is important, but not exclusively. However, having a grateful heart is definately a key component of having a postine attitude.

  18. This is one of those things where the extremes scare me. I’m an optimistic person and I think it’s important, but things like The Secret that insinuate thinking good thoughts is enough scare me. If there is no action it’s being lazy if you ask me.

  19. clint says:

    by Charles Swindoll [wikipedia.org]

    The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.

    Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company … a church … a home.

    The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable.

    The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude … I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you … we are in charge of our Attitudes.

    It may not be the only thing… but it is the biggest thing. If you are trying to get out of debt…save for college or anything else in life Attitude is the most important part of the puzzle.

    Clint Lawton


  20. Big Winner says:

    The psychological elements of the “locus of control” and resilience are also important. They’re similar to a positive attitude, but more detailed and with more specific meanings.

  21. Sandy Naidu says:

    ‘Desire’ is one of the key contributors to success. If you have the desire but no positive attitude then I guess if the desire is strong enough you can develop ‘positive attitude’.

  22. Jamie says:

    Great set of tips! It’s interesting how improving our own positive attitude it’s so related to how we interact with others and the people that surround us. For me the building block of loving care people that support you it’s critical for success

  23. Sam says:

    True happiness and true success for the Christian is found by following the commandment to put our hope in God. If we wake up every morning of our life with our hopes and dreams for today built around our God, instead of setting out to become successful by the world’s standards, and we set out to build a relationship with God the father, this is true success. This is the only true success that exists in the Christian’s world.

    Fix My Personal Finance

  24. Boris says:

    I’ve covered this in many articles I’ve posted. Just having a positive attitude will not get you anything other than … a positive attitude. The key ingredients are still strategy and hard work. Good article. I’m glad somebody feels like me.

  25. Just some mom says:

    Interesting timing…yesterday I was talking about my multiple sclerosis with my doctor. I told her, “Well, generally I try to ignore the MS and just think positive thoughts…that’s how I deal with it.” She said, “That’s good, but there comes a time that you have to do more than positive thoughts.” She was talking about the possible need for medicine, but overall it’s good advice: follow good thoughts with action. E.g., don’t visual world peace, do something to accomplish world peace.

  26. Jessica says:

    Yet another great post. I will definitely work on the seven tips that you provide to build a positive attitude.

  27. Tal galili says:

    A great article. I got here from Zen Habbits and I read every piece – thanks!

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