The Million Dollar Question

One question. One simple little question that if answered consistently could be worth millions, not to mention improved happiness and health. Before I give you this powerful question, let me explain why this question will literally change your life. In 2006 after just helping the St Louis Cardinals win their first world championship in 20 years, I was asked to identify the psychological characteristics that would help the team select future draftees with the greatest potential for high level success. While searching for the magical combination of mental make-up, I stumbled across the importance of optimism. Many researchers consider optimism, the ability to focus on solutions especially in the face of adversity, as the key to improved health, happiness and success.

For years we have heard the importance of “be positive,” but prior to this one little question, very few knew exactly how to be optimistic and positive. Granted, being positive is abnormal, the truth is our minds are built in a way that it is easier to focus on problems than it is to emphasize solutions. When I present this topic to large groups, I illustrate the point by showing a photograph of a beautiful desert landscape with majestic snow-cap mountains in the background with an oil pipeline running through the middle of the photo. I take the photo down and ask attendees to write down what they remember most at which point 90% list the pipeline as the most remembered item. We see and focus on that which is wrong instead of seeing all the positive and good. The tendency to emphasize problems is something I call PCT, problem centric thought. PCT is the biological reason why being positive is so difficult.

The great news is that we have the capacity to train ourselves to overcome PCT and become optimistic. The key to optimism lies in the simple question: what is one thing I can do differently that could make this better?  

Jack Welch, GE’s former boisterous boss, created an equation of human characteristics to identify potential leaders which was used as hiring methodology at GE. For years Welch used the 4E+P equation (Energy + Energizer + Edge + Execution + Passion) in determining who had the metal edge to succeed on the GE executive team. Considering that the average CEO earns $10,408,054 annually, whereas the annual income for a non-executive is $50,233.00, a leadership position seems rather enticing.

With Welch’s leadership equation in mind, there is, of course, a method of learning how to develop the 4E+P characteristics. According to researchers like Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) the most effective method of developing Welch’s traits and leadership capabilities is to hone in on becoming more optimistic. Optimism appears to be the key trait for increasing success, happiness, and health.

Additional research suggests that modeling a positive attitude reduces injury and sickness by 30 percent and can even extend a person’s life by 14 years. In his groundbreaking book Learned Optimism, Seligman outlines how optimism undoubtedly impacts an individual’s ability to improve many of the very characteristics that Jack Welch and other employers look for in job applicants.

The good news–we all have the capacity for change. We are able to overcome our human tendency to focus continuously on problems and actually become solution-focused and optimistic simply by answering the question (what is one thing I can do differently that could make this better?) every time we catch ourselves thinking negatively.  

Be sure to follow a few guidelines when using the million dollar question: 

  • The + 1 Concept: Focus on improving, not perfecting. You do not need complete resolution of the problem. You only need improvement. Consistent improvement over time leads to resolution. With this in mind, all  problems have a +1 solution.


  • Be Relentless: Within 60 seconds, turn every problem thought into a solution focus.


  • Utilize the Socratic Power: The power of this tool lies in its use as a question.  Avoid answering this question for another person. Encourage others to develop their own solutions by answering for themselves.

How do we learn to become solution-focused? Some people are better at it than others. But the truth is that most of us are already somewhat solution-focused.  The path to greatness begins by becoming more solution-oriented until focusing on solutions becomes the norm.

Expectancy theory states, that which we focus on expands. If we continue to allow ourselves to focus on problems, we will actually have more problems. Conversely, asking and answering the question (what is one thing I can do differently that could make this better?)  within 60 seconds of PCT occurring will literally cause our level of optimism and success to grow.

Any time you catch yourself thinking about what is going wrong in your life, be relentless about asking this question (what is one thing I can do differently that could make this better?). Keep asking until you identify a potential solution to your problem.

The mere identification of a potential plan for a solution is helpful, as it breaks the negative cycle of thought.  You will obviously need to put energy into the execution of the solution, but the essential first step in getting started is realizing that something can be done to improve any situation.