“Optimism, Captain!"

Maybe it's the sunshine. Maybe it's being more or less on schedule with my reading for class this upcoming week. Maybe it's having my keyboard clean and my laptop's operating system reinstalled so that I don't get the Spinning Beachball of Death every time I start trying to type.* Maybe it's sitting here on the porch with my husband watching the Dragon Baby frolicking in the leaves. Or maybe it's reading more in Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (New York, 1998), but I really am feeling better. More optimistic, even.

Not so much yesterday when I started reading Seligman's book. I took his "are you depressed?" quiz and nearly maxed out (40 points out of 60, with over 24 points being in the danger zone for "severely depressed"). Apparently, I should be seeking professional help now. Like right now. As in yesterday. It's amazing I haven't killed myself. Or maybe I just exaggerated on the quiz when evaluating such statements as "I felt lonely" (Most or all of the time [during the past week] (5-7 days)) or "I felt like people disliked me" (ditto) or "I felt that I was not as good as other people" (again, ditto). But depressed though I may be, in actual fact I'm more worried about how I tested for my explanatory style about the good and bad things that happen to me because I thought I was actually doing okay on that quiz.

See, apparently, according to Seligman's "how optimistic are you?" quiz, while I am in the "moderately optimistic" range about why bad things happen to me, I am greatly pessimistic about the good. I got a fantastic job just out of graduate school? Luck. It happened to be an extremely cold winter and I showed up on campus for my interview on the coldest day of all (minus 20 Fahrenheit, I kid you not; even the Lab School closed), which meant that not everybody was able to come to my job talk so I got off easy in the questions. I got tenure at the same institution where I was first hired? Luck, again. The departmental meeting for my case was in October 2001, only weeks after the Twin Towers came down. Nobody was in the mood for turning me down. I make the top 8 at Summer Nationals in Veteran Women's Foil? Luck. I didn't have to fence her or her or her to make the finals; otherwise I would never have made it through. And so forth.

According to Seligman's quiz, while I am moderately optimistic about how long bad things will persist, I tend to say things like "It's my lucky day" or "I try hard" or "My rival got tired" when good things do. I expect the good, like the bad, to be transient rather than permanent. Likewise, while I am moderately optimistic about how pervasive bad things are, I tend to be very specific about why something good has happened to me ("I'm good at history" as opposed to "I'm smart"; "I was nice to her" as opposed to "I was nice"). So while I tend to be moderately hopeful about bad things (I see them as temporary and specific), I don't expect good things to last either.

Not so bad, you might say. About average. But wait, there's more. The real kicker is in the degree to which I internalize explanations when bad or good things happen. I get lost driving to a friend's house? It's my fault, I missed the turn. I run out of gas? It's my fault, I didn't check how much gas was in the tank. I buy my husband a present that he doesn't like? I didn't think carefully enough about what he wanted. I ask someone to dance and he says no? It's because I'm a rotten dancer. And if something good happens? Luck. Pure luck. Sure, maybe I worked hard, but plenty of other people work hard. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. There is nothing (e.g. my own skill) that could ensure a similar outcome in future. Remember the dogs that Seligman and his colleagues trained to think that there was nothing they could do to escape the electrical shocks? That's me, only more so: I don't think that there is anything that I can do to make things good.

Hang in there with me, I said I was feeling more optimistic now. Because, you see, as Seligman goes on to point out, the great thing is that these are just stories. Moreover, get this: they aren't necessarily even true. I know, I know, that's a hard one to swallow. You mean maybe I got the job because my work is really good or earned a medal this summer because I can fence really well? No, no, no, it couldn't be, I was just in the right place at the right time. It's interesting how firmly I believe this sort of thing, though. But why? What evidence do I have that I'm not, in fact, smart or a good fencer or (Seligman's key) actually capable of doing something that can have an effect on the way things turn out? Who or what convinced me that I am so utterly helpless?

I'm not quite ready to go digging there, nor am I convinced that my blog is the best place to do this excavation. But what I am feeling hopeful about--and, therefore, the reason that I wanted to write something now, to mark that I felt this way this afternoon--is learning from Seligman how to tell a better story about myself and the reasons for my success.

*Thanks to four hours downtown yesterday morning at the Apple Genius Bar getting my iPad replaced with one that could actually project images and then getting my laptop reconfigured so that I didn't keep running out of system memory.


  1. I recently stumbled on this blog serendipitously by following links to the infamous "so you want to get a phd in the humanities" video. (i now subscribe to you with google reader.) i am so glad you are writing it and so glad that you are sharing these thoughts on the depression quiz, optimism, etc. i am a young woman just starting a ph.d. program at a top institution, and i can completely relate to your negative stories. i actually got in to every school (all 8 top notch schools) that i applied to for the phd and constantly say things like, "i just don't know why they all accepted me" and really can't answer that question without making excuses like the ones you write about. i just wanted to say that i really appreciate you sharing your thoughts. i find it a relief to know that not all professors (maybe not even all of mine) have it totally figured out and still struggle with some of the same things i do as i trudge through academia.

  2. @Amanda: Welcome! I am very happy that you stumbled upon my blog, even if it was that oh-so-depressing video that led you here! I think you will find that many (albeit probably not all) of your professors have similar concerns. The problem is finding the right venue in which to express them. Fencing Bear helps me articulate lots of things that I as Professor FB would find difficult to say. I hope that you continue to find her (that is, Fencing Bear's!) musings helpful.


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