“A negative thinker gives up when confronted with difficulty, but an optimist rises to the occasion when the going gets tough.” – Norman Vincent Peale


Optimism is a choice

I do count my blessings, but probably not often enough. One of those blessings is being married to a wife who is never negative about anything. She always has an almost superhumanly positive outlook on life, which I have always admired.

One fine morning over breakfast a couple of years ago, in a weak moment, I made a negative comment to Marilé. I can’t even remember what that comment was, but I clearly remember her response to my pessimism. She said in a firm voice: “You know, to be positive in life is a choice… ”

At that moment, I realised that she was right. I also realised that I had never before thought about the fact that it is that simple. We are in charge, and we, therefore, can choose to be positive. In the same way, we have the option to choose to be negative. Before choosing either of these two options, we can also decide whether to let our circumstances determine our choice, or whether we will make the decision, regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves.

“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” – Abraham Lincoln

I try my best to actively reject pessimism because I concluded that if I entertain it, I cannot benefit in any way. The reality is that I, like everyone around me, only hurt as a result of my negativity. I choose to be optimistic, and linked to optimism is happiness and happiness, just like unhappiness, is also a proactive choice.

Successful self-leaders believe that generally speaking, the world in which we live is a good place, and they are happy with life. Chances are that if you are optimistic and happy, you are also content and have a considerable amount of inner peace. That, I think, is something for which we are all striving. 

“Optimism doesn’t wait on facts. It deals with prospects.” – Norman Cousins

Find your passion and then live with passion

Life is too short to be mediocre, especially when it comes to those things that we enjoy. When we are passionate about something, it’s contagious, and very often we impart in other people an electrical charge to feel that same amount of passion. People admire those who are passionate about something, or about a cause that is pure and just. It is, therefore, important that we find our passion in life and identify those areas that make us tick. When it comes to our career or making a living, Mark Twain said that if we find a job that we enjoy doing, then we will never have to work a day in our life. If we choose to live a positive life, then passion for what we do, while choosing to be around people with passion, supports such a life. 

“A life without passion is not living, it’s merely existing.” – Leo Buscaglia

The power of thought

Marcus Aurelius was the great philosopher who ruled the Roman Empire from 161-180 CE. He was the last of the rulers known as the Five Good Emperors. He was famous for saying: “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

We need to learn to fill our minds with good, positive and constructive thoughts, because we are what we think, and we become what we continue to think. As a boy, one of my heroes was Bruce Lee – and I still think he is an icon. He said that what we habitually think largely determines what we will ultimately become. These words are a great summary of the power of our thoughts. If we fill our minds with good thoughts, then good will come from that. If we fill our minds with garbage, though, the results could be devastating to our success as self-leaders.

A vocabulary of positivity

A negative word is symbolic of failure, and it is important that we remove these potentially harmful words from our vocabularies. It is also important to our self-preservation that we adopt a positive approach when choosing our words – not only sometimes, but always. I used to say: “I have to go to work”. Then at some point, I realised that if I “have to” go to work every day, then frankly I have the wrong job and I need to rather choose another career in which I “want to” go to work.

It helps that I am now running my own business, which focuses on something that I love doing. I now specifically focus on including “I want to” phrases in my vocabulary, instead of “I have to”. For example, I choose to say: “I ‘want to’ go to the gym,” as opposed to “I ‘have to’ go to the gym.” It’s disempowering to give someone else, or the organisation for which we work, power over us. Effectively, we are making a statement that we have no power or authority over our own lives if we say: “I have to,” which is not true. Remember, as self-leaders, we have decided to take charge of our lives. We are in charge. Therefore, we don’t “have to” do anything that we don’t “want to” do. 

“Words can inspire, and words can destroy. Choose yours well.” – Robin Sharma 

Another example in my life in which I made a conscious decision to eliminate a specific word from my vocabulary is to never use the word “suffer”, or “suffering”, when referring to myself. This is not the kind of word that we use when we have decided to take charge of our lives. It portrays us as a victim. As self-leaders, we are not victims, we are leaders. Instead of “suffer”, I would use the word “experience” instead. “I have experienced something that was not ideal, and I have learned a great deal from it…”

Attitude determines altitude

These words are part of a well-known quote by Edwin Louis Cole that I had stuck on my office wall for many years. I kept it to not only remind myself of its power but also to remind every single person who entered my office, especially the members of my team.

In his book, The Spirit of Leadership, Myles Munroe writes: “Attitude dictates your response to the present and determines the quality of your future… It is the servant that can open the doors of life or close the gates of possibility… The distinguishing factor between a winner or a loser is attitude.”

I think this is an exceptionally good description of the power or influence that the right or wrong attitude can have in our lives. 

“Two things define you: your patience when you have nothing and your attitude when you have everything.” – Morgan Freeman 

Attitude is so important in our lives that it is critical we pick a positive one. An attitude of: “It can be done,” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. An attitude of: “I can,” motivates and builds our self-confidence. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. 

“Being positive won’t guarantee you’ll succeed. But being negative will guarantee you won’t.” – Jon Gordon 

If we have an attitude of “I can’t,” then we have a guarantee that we won’t succeed. Theodore Roosevelt wrote that if we believe we can, then we are halfway there. In my mind, it’s quite simple: We need to make an “I can” attitude part of the way that we think, feel and act. That way, we will make our self-leadership story a successful one in which we achieve our personal goals and more.

I grew up with the old question that everyone always asked to determine attitude: “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?” I realised early in life that our attitude is simply the way that we choose to see things. When we have to leave for work and it’s rainy and miserable outside, we can greet the day, thinking: “What a miserable, gloomy day.” Or we can adopt the attitude: “Great! We need to fill our dams for winter. What a miracle! What an amazing day this is to experience nature at its best.” I don’t know about you, but I choose the latter attitude towards life and all of its challenges.

Sometimes, life will change without permission, but our attitude will determine the success of our journey… I am far from perfect, and there are some days when my attitude is not aligned with my good intentions. From personal experience, though, I can recommend that we all adopt an attitude that allows us to choose to become a better person by the time we get out the other side of the dark times in our lives. It is simply the best possible option we can choose. Any other would be suboptimal, and it wouldn’t give us the life we deserve or are capable of living.


Written by:

Hekkie van der Westhuizen, PhD

Author Dr. Hekkie van der Westhuizen shares practical self-leadership tips, tools and interventions in the form of stepping stones that will assist you along the journey to becoming the best possible version of yourself.


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