Key Traits for Career Success | Start with Optimism!

Woman succeeding at work

I recently gave a webinar for the Northwestern Alumni association called “Finding Success in Your Career While Navigating Change.” If you’re going through a change yourself, you can catch it here – you don’t have to be an alum to sign up.

Anyway, one of the attendees on the webinar asked a great question – what are the three traits I see that help people succeed most when navigating change in their career? Whew! Talk about being put on the spot…but what a great question!

What I came up with was:

  1. Optimism
  2. Adaptability / Resilience
  3. Self-awareness

And even though I came up with those on the fly, I still think those are the best traits for succeeding in times of change. But, further, I really think those are some of the best traits for succeeding in today’s workplace. So, I’m going to make this a three-part series and explain a bit about why science supports my hypotheses and how to cultivate more of them with a few simple steps.

So let’s start with my favorite –


“A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

Optimism. I’m naturally a half-glass-full type of gal, so I may be biased here, but I’ve had a pretty great life through circumstances others would find challenging, and I attribute much of that to my optimism. When you look at the world through rose-colored glasses, everything looks…well…rosy. This isn’t a polly-anna type view of the world – it’s a choice to look for opportunities instead of difficulties. A choice to keep moving forward because you know you’ll come out on the other side having grown in some way.

I speak from experience, given that my job as a corporate attorney was pretty much to look for problems. All day. In every situation. But the truth is, my optimistic and rational nature always balanced what I was “supposed” to be doing, and I think that’s why my clients loved working with me. Lawyers – who are trained to spot problems and potential liability in every situation – are often seen as the “department of no.” When my clients came to me, they knew I would never tell them no – I would tell them what I saw and then work with them to overcome the issues (much like what I do with my clients today!).

But beyond just my own experience, science is on my side here. In her book, Positivity, Barbara Fredrickson explains a study that showed that people who spend time thinking about positive experiences and emotions literally see more – through their eyes – THEY SEE MORE! – than those that spend time thinking about problems and other negative experiences and emotions. ?!?!?!? This is pretty amazing, and to me argues that even being more optimistic and searching for opportunities can help you see everything – including risks and problems – easier.

Put into the context of the working world – think of how many missteps are made because of a failure to see some other solution or glaringly obvious problem. Think of how many projects you’ve embarked upon that just feel insurmountable. With a good dose of optimism – according to the research – it’s much more likely you’ll see those issues and that you can easily overcome them and keep moving forward.

How do you cultivate it?

  1. Do something nice for someone. This can be small – hold the door open on your way into the office or buy your colleague a coffee. Doing something nice for other obviously helps them feel better, but also creates more positive emotions in yourself.
  2. Stop and smell the roses. Seriously – look at everything that’s outside your door and note how amazing it is! Even the littlest things – a weed poking up through the cracks in your sidewalk (despite that weeds are enemy No. 1 to me!) are pretty amazing! Marvel.
  3. Smile! Research shows that the simple act of smiling can make you feel better! What a wonder. So, if you’re having a hard time, search the internet for something funny or a memory that makes you smile, and watch your outlook of the day change!
  4. Connect with others. Developing strong social relationships improves your sense of self-worth and helps improve your health. And if those “others” you are connecting with happen to be smilers, well, smiling is contagious so that’s just a big positive feedback loop to bolster positivity and optimism.
  5. Practice mindfulness. I’m a huge promoter and practitioner of mindfulness, and there’s so much science out there that supports the idea that mindfulness makes us happier. A simple way to start is to just notice when you’re ruminating on the past or stressing about the future and choose to pay attention to what’s around you right now. Mindfulness helps you see that you can’t change the past and you can’t control the future, so spend your time in the now and appreciate what you can.

Is there a limitation?


Of course! Anyone who knows me knows I’m definitely not an “optimistic to a fault” type person. You have to be realistic. As the saying goes, “Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.”

When you encounter a difficult situation, start by thinking of everything that can go well and actually envisioning the endpoint as if everything goes your way.

Optimism.? Check.

Then – get realistic. What are some probable hurdles you might face? I’m not asking you to think of everything that could possibly go wrong (ahem…lawyers). What is likely to get in your way and how might you overcome that? By being realistic about your hurdles, you won’t be sidetracked when things don’t go your way and you’ll have a plan to move forward…highlighting your adaptability and resilience!

Which – just so happen to be the topics for my next post in this series! Come back next week to learn what science has to tell you about how adaptability and resilience affect your success in the workplace and how to cultivate more of it!


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