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Excerpted from Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman, Ph.D. Copyright © 2006 by Martin Seligman. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright © by SpiritSite.com.
 

"Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling."

  Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, Part 3

Later in this book we will see that judiciously employed, mild pessimism has its uses. But twenty-five years of study has convinced me that if we habitually believe, as does the pessimist, that misfortune is our fault, is enduring, and will undermine everything we do, more of it will befall us than if we believe otherwise. I am also convinced that if we are in the grip of this view, we will get depressed easily, we will accomplish less than our potential, and we will even get physically sick more often. Pessimistic prophecies are self-fulfilling.

A poignant example is the case of a young woman I knew, a student at a university where I once taught. For three years her advisor, a professor of English literature, had been extremely helpful, almost affectionate. His backing, along with her high grades, had won her a scholarship to study at Oxford for her junior year. When she returned from England, her main interest had shifted from Dickens, her advisor’s specialty, to earlier British novelists, particularly lane Austen, the specialty of one of his colleagues. Her advisor tried to persuade her to do her senior paper on Dickens, but seemed to accept without resentment her decision to work on Austen and agreed to continue as her co-advisor.

Three days before her oral examination, the original advisor sent a note to the examining committee accusing the young woman of plagiarism in her senior thesis. Her crime, he said, was failing to give credit to two scholarly sources for her statements about Jane Austen’s adolescence, in effect taking credit for those perceptions herself. Plagiarism is the gravest of academic sins, and the young woman’s whole future – her fellowship to graduate school, even graduation itself – was threatened.

When she looked at the passages the professor said she had failed to credit, she found that both had come from the same source – the professor himself. She had gotten them during a casual conversation with him, in which he had spoken of the perceptions as just his own thoughts on the matter; he had never mentioned the published sources from which he had obtained them. The young woman had been sandbagged by a mentor jealous of losing her.

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