Positive Mental Attitude

“For scientific leadership give me Scott; for swift and efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Shackleton and his men endured two winters in the Antarctic shipwrecked, alone, and without supplies — and they all survived.  When asked how they did it, the men all attributed survival to the attitude of the man they called “the boss.”

Some years ago I took a survival course; the instructor asked us all to guess what might be the most valuable tool to have in a survival situation.  Matches, compass, cell phone, water — all good guesses, but the right answer:  a positive mental attitude.

This is on my mind because about two weeks ago my home was visited by a category 2 hurricane.  We didn’t have it bad at all, a few trees down, fences damaged, power out — but compared to other folks we got by very lightly.  No water damage, no structural damage to our house, no injuries.  Lots of folks had worse and are still suffering.  My family had . . . inconvenience, disruption of normal life, cleanup, and minor repairs. 

But somewhere in all this, especially in the wee hours of  hot and humid airconditionless nights, the voices of despair start in.  Against all rational thought stress and fatigue cause melancholy.  Black thoughts descent and multiply. They suck the life and energy out of you. The good news is that when the day dawns and you count your blessings and feel the companionship of neighbors and friends it gets a lot better. 

Positive mental attitude, without it you are powerless. 

From what I have read, a lot of pioneers suffered bouts of despair and depression.  It is a hard thing to leave home and family and come to a new world of seemingly endless toil, challenges, and dangers.   There were many who couldn’t take it.  Those that did made a better life for all of us.

One of the secrets in Mission Control is that the Flight Director never lets the troops know how worried you are.  They know anyway but pretend not to.  Gene Kranz’s “Failure is Not and Option” is another way to say ‘have a positive mental attitude’.  There have been times when I found this hard to do.  After Columbia the 3 AM demons kept asking if it wasn’t all a waste and worthless.  All those critics who talk about space exploration being a distraction from the important issues got their whacks in during the middle of those dark nights.  It was enough to suck the life right out of you.  But when morning came, the realization of what is right and true and really important is easy to remember. 

If you are to succeed, you must have a positive mental attitude. Sports are the same, Yogi Berra’s famous quotation sums up what it takes to win at baseball:  “Half this game is 90% mental.”  Too true.  A friend and co-worker got sent to one of those fancy business school seminars to round out his education.  An instructor told the class: “Half way through any project, it looks like a failure.”  That also is true.

When I was a young parent leading a volunteer organization for the kids, we ran into a period when we were not having much success.  I blurted out my feelings in an email to all the parents and asked if we should disband the organization.  Within an hour, half the leaders sent me their resignations.  Lesson learned:  leaders must display a positive mental attitude at all times.  Throwing in the towel will guarantee failure.  A positive mental attitude will not guarantee success, but it goes in that direction.

Call me unsophisticated, but I was brought up on Edgar Guest’s poem “It couldn’t be done”.  If you haven’t read it, you need to.

Its important to remember that we are engaged in the greatest adventure of humankind; the noblest endeavor of our age.  It takes a strong mind to remember that the long view triumphs and the critic is soon forgotten.  I am not talking about a foolish pollyana attitude.  But real progress is being made every day.  And we just need to do pay attention to the details of business and keep making it work each day.  That takes positive mental attitude.

Samuel Johnson observed three hundred years ago: “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill.  Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”  I like what Babe Ruth said even better:  “Its hard to beat someone who won’t quit.”

I’ll remember that sawing up branches after work this evening.  And tomorrow when we get back to the difficult business of expanding the space frontier.

41 thoughts on “Positive Mental Attitude”

  1. Well said.

    “Hard is not hopeless.” — Gen. David Petraeus, who knows a few things about hard tasks.

  2. This is one of the best posts I've read. I plan to refer to it often. Is it alright if I put a link to it on my blog?

  3. An insightful, interesting read as always.

    Along with a Positive Mental Attitude another important thing to remember is to have pride in what you do and to stand up for what you believe, and know to be right. That can get you through many situations where you can see a project may well be heading towards schedule overruns or failure.

    All of my projects have been IT implementations of one sort or another, not exactly the same life and death dealings that NASA has to contend with and some have been dismal failures. For most projects I’ve worked on I can say that I’ve done my best to make the project a success but there are those I could have done more or done things better. All have been a learning experience and as long as everyone is open to learn from both the good and the bad, even a bad project can be a positive experience.

  4. Attitude may be the common currency for NASA, but not for Russia. If you can’t buy Soyuz flights, you can’t fly.

  5. Note that a positive mental attitude is different than sticking your head in the sand.

    A smart person knows when to persevere. A wise person knows how to avoid the situations where you have to persevere.

    Having a positive mental attitude shouldn’t blind you from being wise.

  6. “I used to complain about having no shoes…until I met a man who had no feet.”

    I don’t remember where I heard that, but it was the only intelligent thing I could think of.
    Wayne, you really should hug your entire family and thank God for your good fortune. I do that with mine every day.

    But you allowed us a peek into what makes you tick, and you’re not much different than the man I was perhaps 10 years ago. I am a year younger than you, so I am on the same page of life as you are.

    If you want to experience “despair”, you should live where I do. An aging Rust Belt city, where in winter the sun refuses to shine for weeks on end. A city where those winters can seem endless.

    I live with the “wolf” of depression. I inherited it from my father but never knew what it was or why those thoughts, so similar to yours, would come to call. You’re living with it too.

    The last thing the Columbia crew would have wanted you to do was to feel that what they dedicated their lives to was a “waste and worthless”. If you had the gift of being able to communicate with them, to a man and woman they would have told you why it is necessary to go onwards, even in the face of such great adversity.

    They would have told you what I will tell you now: you’re in “the chair”, now go out and make a difference.

    Jimmy Buffett sings that if a hurricane doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. Take some advice from us Parrotheads. This experience will make you stronger.
    You could have quit and walked away in the aftermath of Columbia; the fact that you chose to stay tells me that that experience has made you stronger.

    The “wolf” will always be at your door, as it is at mine. I have learned to recognize its insistent growling and whining, and have chosen to refuse to allow it to enter my world. You can teach yourself how to know when you’re under attack, and how to negate it.

    Don’t suffer through this alone.

  7. I am sooo glad you have a blog, you have been an inspiration to many people over the course of your public life. We always watched what we would call the ‘Wayne Show’ when you were in charge of the Shuttle. Your answers to peristent media questions were calm and reassuring, even when you had to repeat yourself over and over.

    I want to share a story with you about a Cherokee man and his son. He told his son that inside him were 2 wolves, fighting to dominate his actions. One represented sloth, laziness and generally negative things while the other was eager for good deeds,and positive attitudes. His son asked which wolf won? His reply was,”The one I feed.” We choose and are accountable for our actions. I admire your attitude, you have chosen to feed your good wolf.

    Thanks for being available to US
    Chris Ambrose and family and friends

  8. What a great post – thank you. Having had a long and sometimes tough life I fully agree, but wonder how we can help young people to develop a PMA. My own comes from the hopelessness of a WWII birth in the industrial Midlands of England when much around me was destroyed and there was little to eat. The only way was up. However, I don’t want to even think about inflicting that sort of learning environment on others – certainly not children. Any comments from you and your readers. Thank you. K

  9. What a fantastic post. I believe so much in a positive mental attitude. I'm going to quote this on my blog for my readers 🙂

  10. Without a positive or mental attitude some of our greatest achievements would have never happened. Just like this article say your outlook and attitude can make or break a whole country.

  11. Great post. Should inspire lots of people. If anyone I know is ever down I will tell them to have a positive mental attitude as you say, and I'll refer them to this post. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  12. What a great post on positive mental attitude… very interesting to read. I love the quote…. Sports are the same, Yogi Berra's famous quotation sums up what it takes to win at baseball: “Half this game is 90% mental.” … Just Awesome!

  13. What an inspirational post! I red this a few days ago and I'm still thinking about it.

    “Half way through any project, it looks like a failure.” – How true this is. This has been the case nearly without exception for all the projects that I've been involved in. This really inspires me as I have a number of new projects lined up for 2009.

    I'll also remember “Its hard to beat someone who won't quit.”

    Thanks for a great post.

    Kind regards

  14. Think positive and you will succeed! I would also like to add something …

    Don't forget to once in a while !!


  15. Wayne, I'm in complete agreement with you. Most people lose the battle before they even try. It's a well known fact that failure is so when we accept and declare it. Kind of like the old saying if you think you can, you can. If you think you cannot, you cannot.

    The reality is, we don't need to look too far for excuses to quit. They are all around us. They disguise themselves as our friends, family members or co-workers.

    And even if those excuses didn't surface, we have a way of fabricating them. I often say most people an inventors. They invent excuses in order to justify quitting. Only if they truly understand the awesome power of having a positive mental attitude.

    Many years ago when I was a sickly poor kid in an impoverished village in the Caribbean, I suffered tremendously from the blows of poverty. Many times I didn't think I would survive. There were signs all around me reminding me that I had a slim chance of survival. You know what? Quitting was not an option. I put up a good fight and I won.

    I'm sure you have heard, it's not the size of the dog. It's the size of the fight in the dog. Well, I was a frail and feeble child. But in me, there was an urge to press on. My positive mental attitude to this day continue to lift me above the excuse makers.

    When I came to America, I had one pair of pants, two shirts and only five dollars. I didn't speak any English. I did what most broke immigrant from the Caribbean did. I became a janitor, I washed cars on the streets of Miami. Everyday, I would write three words on my hands and try to memorize them. English was my Mount Everest.

    But I dared to believe I could become somebody in this great land of plenty. There was too much evidence for me not to believe so. People from all walks of life succeeded in this country. Why not me?

    That kind of positive mental attitude is exactly what gave me a slice of the American Dream. I read and devoured hundreds of books. I began to apply what I was learning. The more I learned the more I earned. I even amazed myself. This is not to brag. I'm simply agreeing with you.

    Wayne, if you care at all to get more details about my journey, feel free to go my site . I often say, I am one of the most grateful human beings on the face of this planet because I live the United States of America.

  16. Thanks for great information about positive mental attitude. Great information in these difficult economic times.

  17. But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
    Just take off your coat and go to it;
    Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
    That “cannot be done,” and you'll do it.
    -excerpt from “It couldn't be done” by Edgar Guest

    Thank you pointing out such a wonderfully inspirational piece of poetry and helping us all find the Shackleton in ourselves.

  18. Shackleton is a great example of a working, positive attitude. Because of his optimism, and drive to get his men home alive and well, not one man from the Trans-Imperial Antarctic Expedition died! The quote at the top is something I found while reading Endurance; Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing– it’s a great book!
    Your ideas are well put together and completely correct.

  19. This really is a great post, very uplifting and positive in this time of great stuggle. Thank you.

  20. This is a very interesting post, many people often underestimate the power of positive thinking. Usually the biggest obstacle to overcome is your own doubt, after that anything you encounter is small in comparison.

    My father runs his own business, has for most of his life. A few years ago, he reflected on his decision to do that and commented that “If I knew then what I know now, I never would have had the nerve to try.”.

    Another for the sports quotes:

    Wayne Gretzky – “You miss 100% of the shots you don't take.”

    – Kuy, Programmer and Designer

  21. This is a very interesting story, thank you for sharing it. If you don't mind, I'm going to share it with some of my colleagues as well. We're in the middle of a particularly difficult time at work, and I believe they could use a bit of positive thinking.

  22. Nice post. Without a positive mental attitude, even if the will is strong, you will be brought to your knees. Life has a funny way to throwing things at us that are big enough to bring us down but small enough to allow us to push back and stand up if we have the right mental attitude. Thanks.

  23. It's hard to beat someone who won't quit. It's even harder to beat a whole team of people who won't quit. Go NASA!

  24. I always try to keep a positive mental attitude and believe that if you Smile, Laugh, Greet people courteously and show enthusiasm in day to day life this can be achieved. It's also important to love your work, and be focused at all times. Being dedicated, disciplined and regular in your work while showing commitment will also help to keep things positive. Thanks for your interesting post and insight into the subject.


  25. This is a very inspiring post. It is very true and sometimes we forget. Life can be very hard and some of us face many setbacks. But you can never give up. You should never quit. Perseverance is the key. When you fall, you just got to pick yourself up and try again. And, maybe again and again and again.

    I for one am very hard headed sometimes. It is mostly not beneficial and it takes a lot longer to achieve. But, I have found that if I keep trying eventually I usually succeed and even surpass my expectations. Never give up!

  26. True, positive mental attitude is the best tools to survived, without it peoples tends to be depressed and hopeless. If people have positive mental attitude they can think what do next to make it better. Cheers, Jacob, baby shower games

  27. What an inspirational post! I red this a few days ago and I’m still thinking about it.

    “Half way through any project, it looks like a failure.” – How true this is. This has been the case nearly without exception for all the projects that I’ve been involved in. This really inspires me as I have a number of new projects lined up for 2009

  28. The last thing the Columbia crew would have wanted you to do was to feel that what they dedicated their lives to was a “waste and worthless”. If you had the gift of being able to communicate with them, to a man and woman they would have told you why it is necessary to go onwards, even in the face of such great adversity.

  29. I think your post is along the lines of the book “The Secret”. I do believe that positive thinking to an extent will help you achieve your goals. On the other hand you must be self motivated and take action because think positive won’t do the leg work.

    Daniel, CEO

  30. Great article. We all need such articles for assistance of our every day jobs. Motivation is the key of success in today life. Many great people do amazing and wonderful things not because they were strong or cleaver but because of their faith and their dreams. USA was founded on the dream of such people and we all want to be like them. So let's believe, dreams and make our dreams come true!

  31. One of the most inspiring posts I ever read. I’ll like to read this regularly to keep on with the inspirations. I thank you for sharing the personal stories.


  32. “Positive mental attitude, without it you are powerless.” wise words it fits in all situations in life. thank you for the kind words, it was really an enjoyment to read your article.

  33. I found this post through
    Very interesting: Its hard to beat someone who won't quit.

    This has always been my way of life

  34. says this… it's more than just a positive attitude it's being able to convey that attitude to the people you are leading. They have to perceive the value in your leadership.

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