Two people each invest R100,000 in a business venture, the business goes belly up and they lose everything. The one thinks: ‘I’m an idiot, I got screwed, my life is over.’ The other thinks: ‘What can I learn from this?, How can I make sure my next business succeeds?’. Spot the person who becomes depressed and never achieves anything ever again. Spot the person who eventually makes a million. What’s the difference between them? The first one is an optimist. Research shows that optimism is one of the key psychological ingredients of success. It stands to reason, if it’s true that entrepreneurs fail on average 3.8 times before they finally succeed, the right response to adversity is crucial for eventual success. When the pessimist fails he expects it to be forever, so he gives up, the optimist expects eventual success so he stays engaged. Failure is only terminal if you don’t get up.


One of the landmark studies in this field was performed by Dr Martin Seligman, a past president of the American Psychological Association. At the time Metlife, one of the largest insurance companies in the United States had a problem shared by most of their competitors. In the first year they were hired, half their brokers resigned. You would think it would be easy to predict successful brokers on the basis of IQ, qualifications and work experience, yet these traditional indicators of success couldn’t even predict who would stick it out in the company. Metlife was losing 75 million dollars a year in wasted hiring costs. They were so desperate that they compiled a random profile of their top performers. They asked them arbitrary questions like ‘what’s your best color?’, ‘what’s your star sign?’ and ‘what’s your favorite car?’.  It sounded a bit like the conversation you’d have going on a date with a sixteen-year-old. Amazingly in some ways this 1st date interrogation was more effective than an IQ test but it still wasn’t very effective.


Enter Dr Daniel Seligman, he hypothesized that the star performers would be primarily optimists. As we’ve discovered, optimists are people who expect the best, they are quick to turn problems into opportunities, should the optimist fall out of the window of a 40 story building passing buy the 20th he’d say to himself: ‘so far so good’. Metlife were skeptical. Insurance is the kind of product sold on the possibility that something bad is going to happen. Surely the optimist’s anthem: ‘Don’t worry be happy’ would be the death knell of any insurance salesman. Amazingly, Seligman found that the most optimistic sales staff sold double the amount of insurance policies than their pessimistic counterparts. It wasn’t because they told their prospects ‘don’t worry it will be ok’ it was because they told themselves: ‘don’t worry it will be ok’. See, sales people, entrepreneurs and in fact all of us get a lot of rejection. The stars are the ones who in the words of Winston Churchill can go from ‘failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm’. Lose your enthusiasm and you stop trying. Many people just don’t realise how close they are to success when they give up. The stars persist not because they are more able or talented or intelligent, they persist because they are more optimistic, because they believe in a better tomorrow.


Life insurance is probably the most difficult sales industry to be in, think about it, you’ve got to convince people to sacrifice part of their salary so that they can be rich when they have an accident and die! Yet optimism is crucial for success in any sales industry. Research tells us that it takes on average five exposures to a new product before a person will buy. When it comes to ‘bold calling’ on the telephone that means five calls before we should think about giving up on a prospect. Yet over 50% of sales people give up after the first call, by the fourth call, 80% of sales people have given up. You can see the problem. If 90% of all business is done on the 5th call, no wonder most sales people aren’t getting the deal. What determines whether a salesperson will go through to the 5th call or not. Quite simply whether they expect to get the business or not. The optimist says to herself: ‘if I stay engaged, learn from my setbacks, adjust my approach eventually I’ll get the business’. The pessimist says: ‘it’s never going to happen’ so he gives up. You don’t have to be in sales to get the point. What ever great big hair-raising goal you have for yourself, you are likely to encounter many setbacks, the secret is to expect short term failure and long term success.


Fortunately we can all learn to become more optimistic. I have seen the most dyed in the wool pessimists become significantly more optimistic through some simple mind shifting processes. Most important of all we need to change the way we think about failure. Thomas Edison didn’t say he failed to invent the light bulb and switch nearly a thousand times he said he just found nearly a thousand ways not to do it. When you lose there is always a lesson to win.


© Justin Cohen


Justin Cohen is an international speaker, trainer and author. For more personal development resources go to