The secret to highly successful people
Tojo Thatchenkery and Carol Metzker

This article appeared in Ode issue: 34
Accessed October 16, 2006

Appreciative intelligence allows us to see what’s possible and make it happen.

When the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, the general public and scientists in the aerospace field both held high hopes. The world waited expectantly for answers to riddles of the universe that would be revealed by the telescope’s views of space.

But blurry images caused by a flawed mirror sent those hopes crashing to Earth. The U.S. Congress demanded an explanation for the failure. The project and its creators became the butt of jokes on late-night television. Stress and health problems afflicted many NASA engineers.

“It was traumatic,” says the former director of NASA’s astrophysics division, Charles Pellerin, who oversaw the launch of the Hubble. Nobody could see how to fix the problem.

Well, nobody except Pellerin. He not only had insight on how to solve the problem but found the funding and resources to repair the telescope, for which he received NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal. But his real reward came over the next decade when the telescope provided spectacular images and important discoveries about stars, galaxies and other cosmic phenomena.

What was the secret of Pellerin’s success? Dozens of other people at NASA had high IQs and world-class technical knowledge—they were, after all, rocket scientists. They could perform the same analyses, use the same logic and master the same models and mathematical formulas. So what gave Pellerin the edge? What made him persist until the telescope was fixed when others felt overwhelmed by the challenge?

His mind perceived reality differently. He reframed the situation as an unfinished project, not a failed one. He never lost sight of the potential for a positive outcome—a space telescope that worked. He saw how that positive future could happen as the result of technical solutions—corrective optics-package repairs performed by a crew of astronauts—that were possible with a rearrangement of funding and resources that already existed within NASA. By reassessing the situation, recognizing the potential and envisioning the repaired telescope, he was able to help orchestrate the unfolding of events that changed the future.

While most of the NASA scientists are at the top of the charts in the intellect department, Pellerin possessed something more: appreciative intelligence.

Appreciative intelligence can be defined as the capability of perceiving the inherent generative potential within a situation at hand. Put simply, appreciative intelligence is the ability to see the mighty oak in the acorn. It is the capacity to see a strong trunk and countless leaves emerging from this small nut as time unfolds. It is a knack for seeing a breakthrough product, top talent or valuable solution for the future hidden in the present.

Appreciative intelligence is similar to what Viktor Frankl, survivor of a German concentration camp, wrote in his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, about the power of looking horror in the face and finding something there that allows you to survive. It is that capacity not to flinch but to learn from the things you fear. To quote Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Everyone has appreciative intelligence to a greater or lesser degree. The most recent research shows our intelligence can be enhanced and nurtured; it is not an innate, unchangeable ability. Happily, this means appreciative intelligence can be developed and improved. Recognizing and cultivating your own sense of appreciative intelligence can make a difference in your prosperity, health and success.At least three different ways of changing your behaviours and thoughts enhance appreciative intelligence.

First, you can change behaviours by working on them directly. For instance, you may be accustomed to going to work a particular way every day. If construction forces you to change routes, you may deliberately remind yourself to travel that new direction every morning until a new habit forms.

Second, you can directly change your thought processes. One of the ideas for which 1972 Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman is well-known is called “neural Darwinisim.” He pointed out that our brains have some 30 billion neurons and a quadrillion synaptic connections. As we develop into adulthood, connections that are used most often are kept, while the least-used connections are destroyed or “pruned.” According to Edelman, constant activation will influence neural growth and synapse formation. In other words, the more we use certain mental processes, the stronger they become. Therefore, if we intentionally work on feeling optimistic, those neural connections are strengthened. We can think of this as a mental workout—if we work the neural “muscles” of optimism, they get strengthened and we feel optimistic. If we decide to be happy, those “happy synapses” get strengthened. In other words, by choosing to have a certain mindset, we can end up getting it.

Third, you can change your mindset by changing your actions. To grasp the significance of this, try the following quick exercise. Smile. Hold that smile for a few minutes. (It may feel like a long time.) Within a few minutes you will begin to feel happier than you were before you began to smile. After a while, your smile will feel natural, you may relax, and you may feel genuine happiness. Because our brains do not distinguish between a smile (or other action) brought about by a mental state or one caused by moving our physical muscles, we can change our mindset through physical changes.

The best way to enhance your appreciative intelligence is to determine what your abilities and qualities are and build on them. Stretch them, strengthen them and use them in new areas of your life. For many people, this approach will run contrary to what they have learned. Martin Seligman, leader of the positive psychology movement, points out that the trend in psychology for years has been to focus on deficits. In corporations and elsewhere, consultants and management look for what’s broken and try to fix it. The problem is this often returns a situation to a minimal level of functioning—not an optimal state of productivity. Rarely does such an approach bring about a great future.

Enhancing your appreciative intelligence will not make you happy all the time or keep you from making mistakes. What appreciative intelligence can do is to help you learn how to reframe situations so you can solve problems in a creative way. You may begin to see innovative solutions. You might blame yourself and others less and get what you want more. You may find yourself bringing out the best in others; seeing connections you had never noticed; and finding happiness, appreciation or fulfillment in new places.

This is an excerpt from Appreciative Intelligence: Seeing the Mighty Oak in the Acorn, by Tojo Thatchenkery and Carol Metzker (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006).

Article Comments


Robin Jenkins aka Urania (Las Vegas, NV USA)
Great article! I put a link to it on my astrology blog at for the piece entitled: Gemini New Moon, '06

Anonymous (Toronto)
Excellent article. Recommended to be read over and over again as a reminder to appreciate and strengthen minds ability. Very well written.

Brett Ferguson (Vancouver,Canada)
Wonderful article...have recently read an article about a cosmetic surgeon that injected botox into he facial muscles that allow you to frown.The subjects were ,and had been for some time,clinically depressed.The results were that eight of eleven came out of their chronic condition within three months!

gizelle (nyc)
very insightful article; i was able to relate and utilized this concept in my own personal growth. (NYC)
i fully agree with this article. makes me want to read the book!

Kat (Homer, Alaska)
This concrete example of manifesting imagination is just what my board of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies needs as we inspire, inform, and involve Alaska stewards. What does a 25 year young organization see as its future for service to the world? How will we get there? Who will be/do/have the questions/answers? Happily, we invite you to experience our response at

Julia Opie (Stratford, ON Canada)
Thank you for a thought provoking article. This approach would be valuable in parenting. That is, to teach your children that they all have abilities and qualities to build on and stretch. As well, we would be teaching our children to "solve problems in a creative way". Wouldn't the world be a different place if everyone had this approach?

Mon (Rotterdam)
Yes.This article has really cheered me up! Although, I know about those mental exercises and that our minds create our world, sometimes I catch myself that I'm neglecting that knowledge and I'm turning myself again to negative mental states, especially when I had a kind of "bad" day. (lake villa)
Your 3 ways to change your thoughts and behaviors are excellent, and all work exceptionally well. Anyone with a big vision and a little effort every day can accomplish great things. Thanks for such an uplifting article. Carole

hb shaikh (karachi)
very insightful article great for self devlopment at any stage in life circulates to my boys as a must read

Anand Rao (Bangalore, India)
Great article. Has to be published and promoted widely. The power of the mind has fascinated saints and scholars from time immemorial. Would really appreciate reading a sequel to this article and interesting further information.

claire in Connecticut (Winsted, CT)
The Power of Positive Thinking has been around for some time.As has the idea of the importance of attitude. This article simply intellectualizes these concepts.

Craig (BoXing, ShanDong, China)
Stimulating article. 'Reminds me of the physical and mental excercises in kriya yoga (Paramahansa Yogananda)- another excellent example of physical changes changing your mindset. Now, on a different note (reality check), i can't help but commenting on another, more obvious 'secret to success' -- funding, resources and inheritance. Money gives you a leg up, so you can reach for the stars. Let's get real; Horatio Alger-type success stories are a thing of the past.

Anita Paul (Delhi)
Quite an intresting article. i am going to give a copy of this to my colleagues so that many more people get benifted

marcelino (porto, Portugal)
great article :) I think that we must do an effort at everydays moment, and to pay attention for what happens in our mind, and the negative states or thoughts are not so negative until we interpret them as so, its a question of what we want for ourselfs and that states of mind is like a bell ringing and saying " hey you! yes, you! its time to wake uup!!!so put your ass moving!" eheh :) and in that way, they are like positive but with other face. I bless my imperfections because they make me think and to behave in another way and to think positive. its life transformation, the possibilities are infinite. sorry for my bad english heheh with love, marcelino

Bruce Malogo (Lagos, Nigeria)
Great piece. This is one of those rare find that help to solve degenerative or seeimgly failed human progress -- private as well as in public life. I see it helping me resolve my present dilemma.