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Want a Better Life? Try Changing Your Focus.

March 1, 2018

My father passed away recently. My thoughts are saturated with him. 
There are many words I’d use to describe my dad, but the word optimistic stands out the most. 

A few years ago, I asked my dad what it was that made him so optimistic. He replied simply, “I’ve never failed!” Hmmm….

Can you imagine?! Living for nearly 86 years and believing you’ve never failed?! (To be clear, my dad, a humble man, wasn’t boasting, just explaining.)

As I’ve reflected upon my dad, I’ve wondered about the mindset that resulted in his believing he’d never failed. (Most days, I feel like I’ve failed at least once before breakfast. I didn’t inherit his optimism.)

I’ve determined that the key to his optimism was in his perspective and what he chose to focus on.

Optimism (Like Failure) is a Matter of Perspective

Clearly, my dad’s belief that he’d never failed was a product of his perspective. Most people living his same life would likely frame it differently. They might say they’d failed many times, in smaller and bigger ways, learned from those failures, and applied what they’d learned.

While my dad did accomplish a great many things in his life (mainly in the business arena – many said he had a Midas touch), he definitely lived a very human and imperfect life. He wasn’t a good student (he played too much), he made decisions (or didn’t make decisions) that he would have made differently in hindsight, and not everything he pursued came to fruition.

What you and I might call failures didn’t seem to stick with him. They didn’t matter or were irrelevant to him. He focused so little on what didn’t work out that his ‘failures’ were consigned to oblivion.

It’s About Focus

What was it about my dad that created such an optimistic perspective? My dad focused on the positive. I know, yawner, right? How many times have you heard, “Focus on the positive!”?

Throughout my life, I’ve heard it dozens, if not hundreds of times, though never from my father. He simply did it.

Our own data from the EQ Profile, an instrument that reveals one’s level of positivity under stress– reveals that people who focus on the positive, experience fewer distressing feelings. Something about focusing on the positive makes the rest of our experience better, lighter.

So, I’ve decided to attempt to reverse engineer exactly what it was that my dad focused on that allowed him to be so optimistic. I’ve written this blog post as if he’s teaching me how to shape my focus to become more optimistic.
My hope is that if you have clients who could use a bit more optimism, this post might be a resource for them.

Work in the Sweet Spot 

Find the intersection of what you are good at, what you love to do and what makes a difference. And DO THAT!

When you spend time in that sweet spot, you’ll find that you are having fun, that you are in the flow, that you feel joy and gratification. Over time, you’ll enjoy the experience of mastery, which is its own reward.

My dad went to work, most days, up until a week or so before he died at age 87. Work was his medicine. Work never felt like work to him. It’s what he chose and loved to do. He experienced mastery.

Focus on the Pluses

Focus on what’s working, what’s good, what’s positive. Any given day is full of pluses and minuses. Focus on the pluses. Doing or experiencing more of the pluses will get you further than trying to focus on and fix the minuses.

My dad’s doctor recommended hospice to our family more than two and half years before he died. When my dad was ill and began to feel an ounce better, he focused on that. And that ounce got bigger and bigger until he WAS better. He did this throughout his life, focusing on what was good, on what was working.

Set Realistic Goals

A Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) sounds good, sure. But most of the time, for most people, setting realistic goals works better. Setting a series of realistic goals that result in a string of small wins usually produces better results than swinging for the fences. Once you have a string of wins behind you, and you know what you can confidently produce, then you can aim higher. 

It’s easy to look at my dad’s accomplishments and imagine that he set one BHAG after another. I know that he didn’t. Whatever he did, he started small, planned and analyzed thoroughly, worked smart and hard. And that created small successes that led to bigger ones.

Focus on Your Successes

Focus on what you’ve done that’s worked. Focus on what you’ve done that you’re proud of. We spend way too much time ruminating on what we didn’t do or what didn’t work. That only makes us miserable. The book, Hardwiring Happiness, provides the neuroscientific evidence that proves this point. By focusing on our successes, our pleasures, our pluses, we can live a happier, more content, more fulfilled life.

My dad loved his life. Even at the end, when he was practically blind, quite deaf without his hearing aids, and needed a walker to get around, he focused on what he still could do, and he got joy from that.

Focus on the Good in Others

Look for and see the best in others. When you look for, see and acknowledge the good in others, they feel seen and appreciated. And they do more of what you noticed. And they enjoy being with you.

At the end of his life, my dad had a company with three full time employees who had worked for him for a decade or more. They were more like family than employees. They loved working for my dad, and enjoyed the time they spent at work.

Never Stop Hoping

We can always hope. No matter how dark things are, no matter how difficult life can be, we can always hope things will get better. Studies show that hope isn’t simply a dream or a passing belief. It’s a dynamic cognitive motivational system that is conducive to growth and improvement.

My dad never stopped hoping that even the most intractable challenges in his life would get better.

Focus is a Choice

I recently started reading a book called Happiness is a Choice, after hearing the author interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The idea that happiness is a choice kind of ticked me off. 

Choice assumes control. And I don’t believe I can control my thoughts. And I don’t believe I can control my emotions. So how is it that happiness can be a choice?

I’ve come to learn, from studying my dad and from reading the books mentioned herein, that when we focus on the good in ourselves, in others and in our lives, we are happier, more joyful, more content. And focus is a choice. 

While I may not be able to control my thoughts or my emotions, I can control my focus. And I will.

I will aim to place my focus on the good in myself, the people in my life and the events of my life, to honor my dad, and to become more optimistic.

How do you focus on opportunities and positivity? 
Is it a struggle? Or something you’ve made great progress on? 

– Alison


Alison Whitmire
President | Learning In Action


Posted in: Motivational


  1. Bonnie Hovel - March 12, 2018

    I enjoyed this article and love the way you view your dad’s life and learned so much from his example! I agree with all the points you made. Thank you for sharing this.

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