Tuesday, November 20, 2012

does attitude affect outcome?

I had a bizarre discussion with a new student of mine yesterday. She had been given the task of writing thesis sentences based on SAT essay prompts, and one such prompt had to do with the question of whether attitude affects outcome. The prompt began with a quote from Henry Ford, something to the effect that "Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right." (This quote appears in various forms when you Google it; I'm not sure which version is correct.) My student had written a series of three thesis sentences, all of which rejected the idea that attitude affects outcome. Her reasoning: it's possible to be convinced that you're going to fail at a task, but to succeed at that task nonetheless. Taken in the abstract, I suppose such a situation is possible, but the student's explanatory example was plain weird: imagine that Person A tells Person B that he (i.e., A) can't climb Mount Everest. Person B, trying to be encouraging, denies this and insists that A can do it. Person A then decides to attempt the ascent as a way to disprove B's insistence that A can succeed. A then succeeds at the climb, proving that A's negative attitude was irrelevant to A's success (and, ironically, proving B right along the way).

"But didn't A's attitude-- one of challenge, one of trying to disprove a claim-- affect A's outcome?" I asked. My point was that the example was unrealistic: people aren't that complex.* Who climbs Everest to prove that s/he can't climb Everest? And doesn't the desire to prove others wrong constitute an attitude that can affect an outcome?

I've heard the opposite case many times: someone conceives of a project, then is told by everyone around him not to pursue it because it's doomed to failure. The person pursues his dream, anyway, and succeeds. Many success stories contain that component: proving the doubters wrong. As scenarios go, that one strikes me as both far more common and far simpler: the motivation to succeed at something isn't hard to explain, as it's merely a function of the eros of the spirit.

Anyway, I told the student that her attitude was interesting. "Interesting" is of course, a label we use when we disagree or dislike. I have the feeling that my student ascribes overly complex motives to people who, in general, really aren't that hard to understand.

*Unless they're characters in a Stephen R. Donaldson novel.



  1. Your student is not taking into account the fact that people forced to do (or who otherwise end up doing) something they do not want to do or do not believe they can do will often subtly sabotage (whether consciously or subconsciously) their own efforts. If A truly believed that he or she could not climb Everest, they probably wouldn't succeed.

    I would have taken a more realistic approach to that same issue: you can be very confident in your ability to do something and still fail. This happens all the time. All it requires is a lack of understanding: not understanding your limitations, not understanding the magnitude of a challenge, etc.

  2. Man, the first sentence of my comment sure is convoluted...



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