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Scale the Wall: The Power of Optimism

By Karla Brandau

"I'll never feel better," muttered the small four-year-old struggling to overcome the flu. He had hit the wall and his optimism had faded into depression. Hitting the wall is a familiar term for participants in endurance sports, particularly cycling and running. Hitting the wall describes the condition when an athlete suddenly loses energy and becomes fatigued, the result of glycogen stored in the liver and muscles becoming depleted.

Hitting the wall happens daily in the corporate world. It is a loss of optimism accompanied by discouragement and a feeling of helplessness. What makes you hit the wall? What blocks or disheartens you? Is it a phone call to disgruntled clients? Cold calls? Writing sales copy? Running a meeting? Arguing with a team member over production deadlines? Seeing the glazed look of apathy on a peer's face when you ask for help? Attempting to motivate a disengaged employee? The world economy?

Optimism is dependent on your view of adversity and the thoughts and feelings you internalize when experiencing a difficulty. How you think and feel changes what you actually do. The good news is this: if optimism and the ability to scale the wall is not one of your natural talents (meaning that adversity creates the adrenaline to climb the wall), it can be learned. If you end up thinking "What's the use?" adversity paralyzes you and you quit.

To help them through the crisis when they hit the wall, cyclists and marathon runners use a technique called carbohydrate loading. It increases complex carbohydrate intake during the last few days before an event.

For the corporate endurance athlete, carbohydrate loading is similar to pumping up your mental toughness beforehand in order to dispute and ultimately dismiss depression later in the race.

American psychologist Albert Ellis believed that depression was bad thinking. It was "stupid behavior on the part of nonstupid people." A colleague, Aaron T. Beck, also believed that depression is a disorder of conscious thought and that negative thinking is the disease.

Albert Ellis gave us a model to understand the relationships between an event and your coping response: when an event happens, you run it through your psychological filters of beliefs, expectations and evaluations. These filters produce feelings that cause your coping response of decreasing effort or increasing perseverance and determination.

To illustrate Ellis' point, let's take the sales professional who is makes cold calls. If on the 10th "no" the professional runs the experience of cold calling through the filter of his beliefs that "I'm no good at this," the coping response is to quit for the day. If, however, the professional is predisposed for optimism or has learned to be optimistic and he runs the same experience through the filter of "Great, only a few more calls until I get a sale," the coping response is to scale the wall and double the effort.

Confronted with the distress of the 21st Century global workplace, how do you react to hardship and depression? Wouldn't optimism help you scale the wall?

For every adversity you encounter, your belief system and what you say to yourself determines if you hit the wall and crumple into the fetal position or if you get out your climbing gear and scale the wall with resolve.

Karla Brandau, Certified Speaking Professional, is a workplace consultant and an expert in leadership and professional development. She works with organizations who want to be competitive in the 21st century global marketplace. Sign up for her monthly newsletter, From the Desk of Karla Brandau by going to Karla Brandau.com. Contact Karla at 770-923-0883 for a free consultation or to check the availability of dates to bring Karla to your organization.

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