Emotional Health

Barbara Corcoran, Positive Thinker—The Secret Sauce of Success

She believes that the best employees have a positive attitude toward life that they will bring to work with them, or as writer Anne Lamott puts it,  “Happiness is an inside job.” Asked about what qualities she looks for when interviewing employees, she says,

When I hire people, I just look for the light in the person, to see what’s good about them. I can spot it a mile away. . . So I’ll just ask: “What do you like? Tell me about your mom. Where did you grow up? What’s your hobby? What was your favorite job? Why?”

I’m also trying to figure out if they’re happy, because unhappy people don’t accomplish a lot.

While she found support in the idea that she might not be the best at everything, Barbara was encouraged to look for ways to work things out for herself and keep plugging away at it. Keeping a positive attitude was considered the most important thing. A corollary was never to think of herself as a victim. She says, “Victims don’t succeed.”

A victim sees her failures as someone else’s fault. This leaves her with no power over her fate and no avenue for improvement. If someone sees herself as responsible for her own problems, she also understands that she can take steps to improve her performance. A study showed how this works with students. The investigators separated them into two groups and gave them the same test. Both were told they had done very well on it, but for different reasons. Participants in the first group were told that they did well because they were smart. The second were told they excelled because they had worked hard.

When she compared the subjects on a second test, the two groups had markedly different results. The second group, those who had been told they did well because they worked hard, did better than those who were told they were smart. The researchers believe that this is because the “worked harder” group had a sense of control: it is up to them if they do well or not.

The lessons of Barbara Corcoran’s life are clear: her mother helped her feel good about herself, not dwelling on mistakes, and encouraged her to make the most of the gifts she had. You cannot make every child a star athlete, but everyone can learn about fun, cooperating in groups, and trying their best by participating in sports, if those are sports they enjoy. Not every child can be an A student, but educators are themselves learning more about “multiple intelligence,” the concept that there are many ways of being smart, and not all can be measured by the standard types of tests that have been used in the past.

We have all heard the stories, perhaps myths, about how Einstein didn’t talk until he was three, or that he failed math. As the most famously intelligent man who ever lived, however, he clearly was taught to allow his fantastic mind to wander and be creative. But creativity can be crushed by criticism, and everyone needs to be encouraged to follow an individual path.

By internalizing her mother’s attitude toward her, Barbara was able to succeed throughout her life. Not all of us have been as fortunate as she in our early years, but we can learn from the lessons that this “good enough” mother taught her. Stay positive. Have a good attitude. Believe in yourself. And have fun.



Barbara Corcoran on the Power of a Positive Attitude, The New York Times, June 2, 2017

Anne Lamont: 12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing, TED Talks 

Winnicott, D.W. (1953). Playing and Reality


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  • b. elliott June 22, 2017 at 2:32 pm

    Such a great post! Shared it with my friends who strive to be “good” mothers.

    • Diane Dettmann June 25, 2017 at 8:14 am

      Thank you Dr. Ford for the insightful and inspiring article. Just reading it helped me relax. Today I plan to see life as a place to follow my dreams and have fun in the process!