Do You Have the Right Attitude?

27. January 2014

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

Have you ever had a great day, where everything was going right and one success just seemed to lead into the next one? Conversely, have you ever had a bad day, where you started off in a poor mood, and all you could see was the bad in everything? Did those good or bad days sometimes extend into weeks?

We’ve all experienced stretches of time where things seem to keep going in the same direction. But did you ever stop to consider that it might be your attitude that is the driving factor?

Sometimes, having a somewhat negative attitude towards a particular task can be a productive thing. For example, if you are a technical editor, you start a project by thinking, “What is wrong with this document, and how can I change it to better meet the needs of the intended audience?” You go in looking for things that are wrong, knowing that they are there, and don’t stop looking until you find and fix them.

While working from the hypothesis that “there’s something wrong and I must find it” is helpful in some cases, approaching every situation that way can work against you. If you are in the habit of always looking for problems and mismatches, you will be at a decided disadvantage when you are searching or interviewing for a new job.

Instead of focusing on how well you fit the company and how your professional accomplishments are ideally suited to the requirements of the job, you may continue looking for problems and ways that you don’t fit.

There is no job that is absolutely perfect for you—there will always be something you don’t like or don’t know how to do. What you’re looking for is a position where the good outweighs the bad, and you enjoy doing the good parts so much that the other parts are only minor annoyances. When looking for a new job, it is important to focus on the positive, looking at the skills and experiences that make you qualified for that position instead of dwelling on areas where you don’t fit.

This becomes even more important when you get to the interview stage. The interviewer expects you to convince him or her not only that you can do the job, but that you really want it. You should describe in detail how perfectly suited you are for the position, and how your prior accomplishments have prepared you to do exactly what they need. In order to sell yourself to the interviewers, you first have to sell yourself to yourself.

After all, if you can’t convince yourself that you’re perfect for the job, how do you expect to convince a potential employer? So the next time someone tells you to keep a positive attitude about your job search, remember that they are right. Be positive that there is a job out there for which you’re the perfect candidate—and keep looking until you find it.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D., of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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Want to Sell Yourself and Your Science? Keep It Positive

4. May 2012

Marc Kuchner

Steve Jobs, late cofounder of Apple Computers, had a reputation as a passionate business leader and modern folk hero. In 1999, one of Jobs’s friends said, “He is single-minded, almost manic, in his pursuit of excellence.” That’s certainly a character trait we scientists can admire.

Jobs was also revered for being a first-rate salesman. While salesmanship may not be the first quality scientists aspire to, successful scientists know that they need to sell themselves in order to get jobs and win grants, especially in these tough economic times.

Part of what made Jobs so great at selling his ideas was his optimism and enthusiasm. Jobs peppered his presentations with words like “extraordinary,” “amazing,” “stunning,” “revolutionary,” and “incredible.” When he gave the opening presentation at the computer expo Macworld ’08, he began his talk with open arms, a broad grin, and the words “We’ve got some great stuff for you. There’s clearly something in the air today.” That kind of enthusiasm helped Apple sell 20,000 iPods every day.

The importance of optimism

Maybe we can’t all match Job’s flair for presentations, but his choice of words—“best,” “great,” “awesome”—provide a clue about the right attitude to have when it comes to selling our science.

Enthusiasm is not something they teach in science class. Far from it. Graduate school is all about being tough and skeptical. But as you may remember from kindergarten, everybody likes people who are positive and enthusiastic; a smile on your face addresses people’s primitive needs for friendship and belonging. A good salesperson considers optimism to be part of his or her job.

To quote Adlai Stevenson, “Pessimism in a diplomat is the equivalent of cowardice in a soldier.” Or to quote Anne Kinney, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “If you have a method or idea and you believe it works, you have to be optimistic about it.”

The (negative) power of pessimism

To some degree, we can actually quantify just how important enthusiasm is. For some reason, negative expressions leave a more lasting impression on our psyche than positive ones. Specifically, negative messages are five to seven times more powerful than positive ones. Studies show that when a married couple has more than five positive interactions for every negative one, the relationship is considered healthy. But if the couple starts having fewer than five positive interactions for every negative one, divorce is probably imminent.

If you’ve ever sat on a review panel or hiring committee, you have probably noticed that if someone says something strongly negative about an applicant, it leaves a lingering stain that can’t be erased unless several people override it. For this reason it’s important to have at least five to seven members on any decision-making panel. With fewer people on the panel, a single person’s bad feelings can swamp the process, turning it into a black-balling session instead of a thoughtful discussion.

Beating the odds

The disproportionately powerful effect of negativity in review panels is a consequence of human nature that we scientists need to be aware of. For example, if you’re writing a proposal or applying for a faculty position, you might have to impress a committee with slightly fewer members than it ought to have. That means your task might be more about eliminating negatives than dazzling people.

If you find yourself using negative words often—“no,” “useless,” “doubt,” “shouldn’t,” “skeptical,”—people might start associating that kind of unpleasant feeling with you. And it might take five to seven positive interactions to make that bad feeling go away.

Steve Jobs taught us so many things, including the craft of salesmanship, a crucial tool for scientists during these hard times. On behalf of nerds everywhere—we thank you. 

This post was adapted from content originally published on the Scientific American blog.

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

 

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