What It Takes to Survive Strange Days

By Alan Katz

These are strange days. A pandemic. Civil unrest. A polarized and divisive election. Murder Hornets. Wildfires out of control. Hurricanes. Asteroids on the way. Heat waves. Open enrollment.

If this isn’t the apocalypse, it’ll do for now.

Maintaining a positive attitude nowadays can be a challenge. However, challenges are a fact of life. There is always something that makes staying in a bed all day seem like a viable lifestyle.

Maintaining a positive attitude is more important than ever. Positivity can be the difference between success and failure. This is one of the discoveries of the Trailblazed Sales Study. The study interviewed 200 health insurance agents in six states about their sales and businesses.

Positivity Matters

 Respondents were assigned to one of three groups. High-Growth Producers reported year-over-year sales growth of at least 20 percent. Low Growth Producers grew, but by less. As for No Growth Producers, well, the name says it all.

The study sought to identify what High Growth Producers do that the others do not. I grouped these success drivers into three “paths.” The study’s results are detailed in my book, Trailblazed: Proven Paths to Sales Success.

One of the paths identified is a positive attitude concerning the insurance business and the role of agents. Whether positivity is the cause or the result of sales success was beyond the scope of the study. It was the correlation that caught our attention.

What is a positive attitude? In the book, I define it as responsible confidence married to pragmatic persistency. For purposes of this article, however, we can equate it to optimism.

Ok, so being an optimist matters. But can you do anything about it? If you are not born an optimist, however, can you learn to be one?

Yes, you can.

Learning Optimism

Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD, has spent decades researching  optimism. However, he is no daytime talk show feel good pitchman. Dr. Seligman is a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and a past president of the American Psychological Association.

He has authored many books, including the seminal and, for purposes of this discussion, conveniently titled Learned Optimism. What Dr. Seligman discovered is that the difference between optimists and pessimists is a feeling of personal control.

Personal control, according to Dr. Seligman is, “the ability to change things by one’s voluntary action ….” Whereas helplessness is, “the state of affairs in which nothing you choose to do affects what happens to you.”

When things go wrong, pessimists assume it is their fault, that everything they do will go wrong, and that everything will continue going wrong forever. When things go well, they assume it is the result of outside forces and that it is a temporary phenomenon specific to that one event.

Optimists are the opposite. They take personal credit for what is working, and they think things are likely to work out well now and for the long term. Failure? They blame that on factors beyond their control (think incoming asteroids), assume things will change soon and that the setback is an isolated incident.

In short, pessimists wear hopeless-colored glasses; the spectacles of optimists are tinged by personal control.

The Power of Non-Negative Thinking

Overcoming pessimism and learning optimism requires more than positive thinking. Daily affirmations will not cut it. Instead, Dr. Seligman says the way to learn optimism—and thus have a positive attitude—is to change the destructive messages we tell ourselves when experiencing setbacks to something more positive.

Negative, pessimistic thinking after a lost sale goes something like this. “She said ‘no,’ and so will everyone else I talk to. I’m the worst salesman in the world. No one wants to buy from me, and no one will ever want to buy what I’m selling.”

This internal dialogue no doubt arises from the frustration of the moment and the feeling of rejection all salespeople experience. Just because the feelings are universal, however, does not mean they reflect reality.

Those with a positive attitude, however, perceive a lost sale differently. “She said ‘no’ after I did my best to explain why it was in her interest to say ‘yes.’ Well, you can’t win them all. There will be other prospects. And for some of them, my offering will be a better fit than it was for this one. After all, a lot of people buy—and are happy with—the products I sell. I’ve made the sale before and I will again.”

The good news is that pessimism is a habit which can be broken. Doing so takes a conscious effort, but with time, an individual’s way of viewing the world can change.

There was a fad back in the 80s or thereabouts, when people wore rubber bands around their wrists. When they caught themselves having negative thoughts, they snapped the band to remind them to break the train of thought. The snap was a reminder to view their situation in a more optimistic way. This was straight from Dr. Seligman’s school of learned optimism.

Surviving Strange Times

You can see the impact of how positivity can help with sales success in how agencies responded to passage of the Affordable Care Act. Pessimists felt hopeless. This was the end of the individual market. They sold their agencies.

Optimists recognized the individual market would no longer be the revenue source it was. They acted and adapted. Some went all in on individual, streamlining their agency operations and adopting new technologies to make the lower commissions worthwhile. Others used individual sales as a bridge to senior or voluntary products.

I do not mean to minimize the ACA’s impact on individual health insurance sales. For most agencies it required a major and unwelcome change to their business. This does not diminish the reality that some agencies seized opportunities and are thriving.

How one reacts to what is happening matters. Those who feel in control tend to succeed; those who feel helpless tend to fail.

In the context of the pandemic, this means that sales professionals with a positive attitude are going to adapt. If working remotely is the new norm, they will invest in tools that help them work in a new way. They will take control.

A positive attitude is not the only path to sales success. Business acumen and sales professionalism also play a critical role.

Still, it is nice to know that a positive attitude can not only help you grow your business, it can help you get through strange times as well.


Alan Katz is a co-founder of NextAgency, an agency management system with CRM, marketing, and commission tools for life and health agencies. Learn more at www.NextAgency.com. Alan is a past president of NAHU, CAHU and LAAHU. He is a nationally known speaker on sales, marketing, business planning, and health care reform. Alan is the author of Trailblazed: Proven Paths to Sales Success, available through Amazon. Parts of this article are taken from his book. Follow Alan on Twitter (@AlanSKatz), connect on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/alankatz44) and contact him at AlanKatz@NextAgency.com.