Optimists and Pessimists

My car’s factory CD player got stuck one day and I took it to the dealer to extract the CD. He told me, without even looking at the mechanism, “You’ll have to replace the unit or stop using the CD player.” What!?! One glitch and it’s ready for the trash heap? How about checking first to see if something is loose or it just needs cleaning?

Think about your own team. When challenges arise, who among them, including yourself, tends to usually assume that a solution can be found and who assumes that the problem is too big, so you should give up. “It can be fixed” vs “Just replace it.”

Those who instantly default to a “replace it” mentality think that they are just being “Realistic.” But they are the same people who have led us to a throw-away society where most things don’t get fixed, they just get discarded. That’s an expensive way to live.

In a recent discussion about optimism, one of my friends told me, “I’m not an Optimist nor a Pessimist. I’m a Realist.”

You’ve probably heard that too. Almost nobody deems himself or herself a Pessimist. But they often avoid being labeled an Optimist as well. Why? Because many think of Optimists as dreamers who are out of touch with reality.

I’ve done a lengthy study of these mindsets. Over several years, I’ve observed that “Realists” are never optimistic. In fact, I’ve concluded that: A Realist is simply a Pessimist who won’t admit it!

There are patterns in how people think and what responses they show to challenges. We learn these patterns early in life and seem to retain them indefinitely. But they can be changed.

My friend and colleague Dr. Terry Paulson is a psychologist and author of the recent book, The Optimism Advantage. He has extensively studied these mindsets and the payoffs of each of them.

His research has concluded that Optimists are more likely to succeed than Pessimists. Here’s why: when you think that there is a solution to your problem you’ll be more likely to stay in the game and keep on pursuing a solution. If you don’t think there is a way; somehow, somewhere, then you will give up early to cut your losses.

Likewise, when you see a brighter future being possible then you will be more likely to endure discomfort, confusion or difficulty because you know it won’t last. Years ago, a long-distance swimmer was swimming across the English Channel and gave up just two miles from the coast! All that effort, preparation and difficulty in those cold North Atlantic waters and she quit within two miles of her goal! Why?

In an interview after she got out of the water, she expressed shock that she was so close to her goal. There was a fog in the air and it had obscured the coastline. She couldn’t see her goal! So, she assumed it was still a long way off. If she had known how close it was I suspect that she would have made it no matter how much it hurt at the time.  

When we intentionally form the habit of assuming that there is always an answer or a solution somewhere, then we increase our chances of success. At the same time, we retain our ability to give up or pursue another path, but we do so with a much healthier mindset.

So where do we learn optimism?

We learn it from each other and from the patterns we follow day to day. If you start today to make optimism a priority in your group then others will pick up on that mindset and before long you won’t be the only one who is encouraging it.

Look at the posters on your walls, the calendars, the slogans or sayings you display. If they are encouraging and positive then they will have a good impact on the people who see them each day. Yes, you’ll get some ribbing and complaints at first, but stand your ground. Just create a more positive environment for everyone to work in.

Consider the difference between a poster that says, “Life sucks and then you die!” vs one that says, “It may not be obvious yet, but there is a better way and you can find it.” The first one might get an occasional laugh but the second one might bring about some extra efforts and new ideas.

Next, consider the way you talk about things. Are your own comments positive and productive or critical? How often do you say you “can’t” do something when you merely mean that you haven’t figured out how to do it…yet? There is a difference.

It has been proven that Optimism can be learned. It starts with a decision to change the way you talk about challenges and people, and it continues with the transformation of your workspace into an encouraging place for people to work.

Pick up a copy of Terry Paulson’s book and Martin Seligman’s book “Learned Optimism” and see how you can expand your own possibilities. Your coworkers will be glad you did.

~Jim Cathcart professional speaker and founder of the Cathcart Institute