Optimism

The Hidden Asset

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Among the topics that young people study before they enter the workforce is calculus, the mathematics of change and motion. While training in calculus is undoubtedly valuable, I believe that training in optimism is also important.

Just as it is good discipline to solve problems like the velocity of a car at a certain moment in time, it is also crucial to figure out what drives people to give us the very best that they have to offer. Ironically, Leibniz, one of the inventors of calculus, is also known for his philosophy of optimism. He was considered to be an inveterate optimist, asserting that we live "in the best of all possible worlds". Optimism is an emotional competence that can help boost productivity, enhance employee morale, overcome conflict and have a positive impact on the bottom line.

In writing about optimism, you face the danger of being seen as advocating a "Pollyanna" or quixotic approach. The truth is, however, optimism has been proven to be a powerful tool that will pay dividends for your personal life and give you a competitive advantage professionally in your career. There is a lot to be gained, indeed, in cultivating an optimistic outlook.

Take leadership, for example. Nowhere is optimism more important than in leading organizations. Highly effective leaders have a transforming effect on their constituents: they have the gift of being able to convince others that they have the ability to achieve levels of performance beyond those they thought possible. They are able to paint an optimistic and attainable view of the future for their followers: They move others from being stuck with "how things are done around here" and help them see "how things could be done better".

In The Leadership Advantage, an essay from the Drucker Foundation's Leader to Leader Guide, Warren Bennis tells us that optimism is one of the key things people need from their leaders in order to achieve positive results. Every "exemplary leader that I have met," writes Bennis, "has what seems to be an unwarranted degree of optimism – and that helps generate the energy and commitment necessary to achieve results."

Consider, as well, the reverse: the effect that pessimistic individuals can have on an organization's creativity and innovation. To be innovative, you need to be open to new ideas, wide open to seeing possibilities, willing to take risks and encourage others to take risks – willing to challenge the process in order to create new solutions or products or improve processes. In short, you need to have a sense of adventure and an expectation of success. Those who have a pessimistic outlook typically approach changes to the status quo with the familiar: "We tried this before", "It won't work", or "It will never fly". Such individuals often label themselves as "devil's advocate". How can someone who has a pessimistic outlook embrace change over the safety of the known?

There are other areas which are impacted positively by optimism. Take sales, for example: A study shows that new sales personnel at Metropolitan Life who scored high on a test on optimism sold 37 percent more life insurance in their first two years than pessimists (Seligman, 1990). In another study involving debt collectors in a large collection agency, the most successful collectors had significantly higher scores in the area of self-actualization, independence and optimism. (Bachman et al, 2000, cited by Cary Cherniss.)

Perhaps more significant are the countless studies that have shown that people with an optimistic outlook have healthier relationships, enjoy better mental and physical health and live longer. In The Wisdom of the Ego, Dr George E Vaillant, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, writes about individuals who have "both the capacity to be bent without breaking and the capacity, once bent, to spring back". Vaillant mentions that, in addition to external sources of resilience (such as good health or social supports), these individuals have important internal sources which include a healthy self-esteem and optimism.

These coping mechanisms are fully explored in Dr Valliant's subsequent book: Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life, a truly fascinating study that will be particularly interesting to fellow boomers. This is a compendium of three studies involving over 800 individuals, men and women, rich and poor, who were followed for more than 50 years, from adolescence to old age. In it, we discover that one of the most powerful predictors of successful aging is habitually using mature coping mechanisms or defenses, what Vaillant calls the ability to "make lemonade out of life's lemons." Vaillant's study discovered five of these coping mechanisms: Altruism (doing for others what they need, not what we want to do for them); Sublimation (diverting energy to more constructive pursuits such as creativity, art, sports); Suppression (postponement of stressors, not repression); Humor and Anticipation. Anticipation is realistic, hopeful planning for the future. This means not operating in a pessimistic crisis mode but preparing and adapting for whatever life brings.

So how do you recognize an optimist? Alan Loy McGinnis, author of The Power of Optimism, studied the biographies of over 1000 famous people, and isolated 12 characteristics of the optimistic personality. Among these is: "Optimists look for partial solutions", that is, freed from the tyranny of perfectionism and from paralysis by analysis, they are open to taking small steps towards achieving success.

Another characteristic of those who have an optimistic nature is: "Optimists use their imagination to rehearse success", in other words, they play positive mental videos of preferred outcomes, much like sports figures do. Michael Jordan, for example, once stated that he never plays a game that he hasn't first visualized. Another trait is that "Optimists think that they have great capacity for stretching" – they believe that their personal best is yet to come.

Dr Martin E Seligman, the modern scholar most often associated with studying the traits of optimists, and former president of the American Psychological Association and Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has devoted decades to studying optimistic people and reports three traits that they have in common: They view adversity in their lives as temporary, specific and external, that is, not entirely their fault, as opposed to pessimists who view adversity as unchangeable, pervasive, and more personal. In the face of setbacks, challenges or difficult jobs, pessimist are more likely to do worse than predicted and even give up, while optimists will persevere.

Optimism, therefore, is also an important component of achievement, and is especially important in times of chaos, change and turbulence. Those who have an optimistic outlook will roll with the punches, will be more proactive and persistent and will not abandon hope.

So, where does optimism come from? Is it something we are born with or is it learned? For some lucky individuals, being optimistic comes naturally. The good news is that, for those who don't have it naturally, optimism is an attitude that can be learned and practiced. Here are some strategies you can consider in your journey to becoming more optimistic or in helping someone else who suffers from pessimism:

  1. Avoid negative environments. If this is not realistic, make every effort to seek the company of positive individuals in your organization. Sometimes this may mean fraternizing with peers in other departments. Stay away from the professional complainer.
  2. Celebrate your strengths. The key to high achievement and happiness is to play out your strengths, not correct your weaknesses. Focus on what you do well. (If you are not sure what your signature strengths are, consider reading Now Discover Your Strengths, which includes a web-based questionnaire that helps you discover your own top-five inborn talents.)
  3. Take care of your spiritual and emotional well being by reading inspirational material on a daily basis. This may be different for each person. Some may be inspired by daily quotations, others by reading biographies of successful people in their field and yet others may derive inspiration from reading about all the innovations that we are graced with. A useful website for this is the World Future Society, which keeps up with new inventions.
  4. Manage or ignore what you cannot change. When faced with setbacks, identify what you can change and proactively try to find ways to do something about it. We have often heard this advice – it bears repeating. Be inspired by Benjamin Franklin's words: "While we may not be able to control all that happens to us, we can control what happens inside us."
  5. Learn to reframe. This involved deliberately shifting perspective and looking for the hidden positive in a negative situation: the proverbial silver lining. Look for the gift in the adversity.

    If you are serious about developing greater optimism, there is no better book than Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Dr Martin E Seligman. Learn Dr Seligman's ABCDE model for disputing pessimistic thoughts. This is a very useful and powerful tool to help you change the way you explain events that trouble you from optimistic to pessimistic. Click here for our Book Insight on Learned Optimism.

  6. Adapt your language and outlook. Consider how a simple shift in the language you use can make a difference in your outlook: Do you frequently say: "yes, but...." in response to your constituents' suggestions? The "but" automatically negates anything you have said in the beginning part of the sentence. A simple shift to "yes, and..." might make a positive difference. Check the emails you have sent recently. Count the proportion of negative to positive words. It could be enlightening.

    Become aware of your stance in business meetings. Are you known as the "devil's advocate", the one who is quick to shoot down others' ideas? Jumping in too quickly to negate an idea can derail the creative process. Often valuable ideas are the result of an initial "crazy" thought. At meetings, even when we don't have the floor, we are under a magnifying glass. Practice being more upbeat, practice speaking last, and see what happens.

  7. Focus outside yourself, on important people in your life, on pursuits and projects that fire you up. Bertrand Russell once said that the quickest way to make ourselves miserable is to continually focus on ourselves. It was his love of mathematics that kept him going.
  8. Nurture a culture of optimism when you are in charge of other people at work. Expect people to succeed. Even when they occasionally fail to achieve what they set out to do, encourage them so that they can tackle the next challenge. A simple: "I know you'll do better the next time" can have very positive effects.
  9. Cultivate spontaneity. Consider putting aside all your plans once in a while to take a walk with your kids, play a game or catch a show. Getting out of your comfort zone by being spontaneous helps to develop your optimistic muscle, as spontaneity essentially involves an expectation of having a pleasurable experience.
  10. Consider the health benefits. If you need an extra motivation for practicing optimism, consider the statistics linking optimism to greater health. As Dr Seligman explains, there is evidence to believe that immune systems among optimistic people are stronger than among pessimists.

This paper would not be balanced if we did not address the benefits of pessimism. Pessimists, as Seligman explains, may be more realistic and accurate about dangers and risks. At times, when there is a risk of serious negative consequences, a cautious, risk-avoiding evaluation is appropriate and desirable. But the positive effects of being optimistic – fighting depression, aiding in professional, academic and sports achievement, and boosting mental and physical health – outweigh the benefits of being a career pessimist. The answer then is, as Seligman explains, "flexible optimism", i.e. having the wisdom to assess situations and identify those that require a pessimistic inquisition, and those that call for optimism, for having a "can do" attitude" and taking a chance. Winston Churchill had a reason for saying: "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." Practice seeing the opportunity.

Copyright © 2006-2014 Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is adapted from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is an educator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd, a company which specializes in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training. Click here to contact her or visit her website at www.increaseyoureq.com. Click here for other articles by Bruna.

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