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Being Optimistic

I don’t consider myself to be a motivational speaker. I consider myself to be more of a skeptic. Not a cynic, or a pessimist, but a skeptic. I talk a lot about the issues of happiness and yet oddly, not an optimist. In spite of the psychological studies that point to optimism as a trait of happiness I don’t support it. The reason that I don’t promote optimism is that it’s just too easy to slide that extra inch and end up in denial.

Be a Dreamer, Just Dont Get Lost in Your Imagination

When I refer to an “optimist I’m talking about people with an overly developed “look at the bright side of things” or “focus on the positive,” kind of attitude. I don’t recommend doing that. I’ve discovered that an attitude that only focuses on the positive is out of balance with reality. Sometimes you might go so far as to call it denial. It’s a pretty limiting and unrealistic way to look at the world. You tend to miss a lot of opportunities for improvement, success, happiness, and truth. I find that to be truly wise requires a healthy skepticism.

Overly optimistic people drive down the road working to keep their attention on the positive outcome at the end of the rainbow. Their mantra is “Whatever I focus on I create.” I don’t’ buy this. When I drive down the road I like to enjoy the scenery and keep an eye out for the potholes as well. I don’t’ think I create pot holes by being mindful of them.  They are already there. I just think I have a better chance at avoiding pot holes when I can see them.

At the same time I’m not a cynic or pessimist either. I prefer to do my best and look at everything with open eyes. This might seem like common sense, but actually it’s not that common. I don’t buy into the idea that I am any good at it or even any better than anyone else at it. If I did I might set myself up for a blinding dose of over confidence and optimism.  That blinding aspect can cause you to run into a very painful reality.

Importance of Honesty and Facing the Brutal Facts

In the best selling book Good to Great, Jim Collins outlines in wonderful detail characteristics of successful leaders. One of their characteristics is the ability to honestly face the brutal facts. Collins shares the example of David Maxwell becoming the CEO of Fannie Mae in 1981. At the time the company was losing $1 million dollars each business day. David Maxwell faced the brutal facts and began making uncomfortable decisions to change the company. When Maxwell left in 1991 the company was making $4 million a day.

Facing the brutal facts might just seem like the common sense thing to do. My experience is that it’s not that common. If it was common then why didn’t David Maxwell’s predecessors do something long before his arrival? Perhaps they thought the economic conditions would turn around. Whatever their thought process was it paralyzed them from taking effective corrective action.

Jim Collins shares numerous examples of other companies that had the same relevant factual information but did not accept what it was telling them. They balked at the facts and embraced a more optimistic story instead. Their approach allowed them to feel a little better emotionally until the economic realities hit them even harder.

While one characteristic of successful people is their ability to honestly face the facts. Another characteristic is their gumption not to be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the challenge they face.

What does this Mean to Practical Matters of Your Life

When people pump up the idea about being more optimistic, hopeful, or looking at the bright side of things I’m skeptical of what they are doing. I don’t know if they clearly see what is happening around them. Their mind might use that optimism to hide from an honest assessment. It seems only necessary to prop things up with an optimistic attitude if you are compensating for some negative belief or dark perspective underneath.

If something is really the truth you don’t have to pump your self up to believe in it. I don’t need to convince myself that the sun will come up in the morning. It’s the truth. I don’t need to be optimistic about the sunrise or make myself believe that it will happen. When something is the truth you don’t have to invest your belief in it because it will happen anyways.

Practical Money Matters

On the other hand people who spend more money than they make and run up credit card debt have got to be optimistic people. They really have to believe in a bright future so as not to notice their debt. They have to tell themselves a pretty optimistic story like, “The Lord will provide,” in order to feel okay about their debt situation. If they weren’t optimistic about the finances they might curb their spending habits.

Maybe they put off dealing with the debt because they want to avoid feeling uncomfortable emotions. This seems a lot like emotional denial but might just be an overdose of optimism. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

It’s Not a Lack of Intelligence

I’ve personally seen people with PhD’s run a company into the red and then still not make any changes to the operation. They weren’t alone in this either. They had other very smart people around them that supported the optimistic paradigm. They held strong to the belief that things would change even though nothing did.

Facing those brutal facts isn’t a matter of academic intelligence or education. Those situations come with such an emotional and behavior dynamic that they don’t teach in school. It’s not an academic or intelligence issue. It’s an awareness issue.
Managing your own emotionally driven behaviors is not something that they teach in an academic setting. Without the awareness of how deal with emotional issues people temporarily make themselves feel better by ignoring the reality and hope for a more optimistic tomorrow.

The Dangers of Optimism In Relationships

If you are in an abusive relationship or emotionally controlling relationship being optimistic becomes a dangerous trap. If you are hopeful that your partner will change you are less likely to leave or even ask for help. It is the image in your mind of your partner changing that becomes an illusion that you will cling to. Focusing your attention on that illusion can blind you from honestly assessing the situation.

One clue to this type of behavior is trying to make the relationship appear better than it is to your friends and family. Perhaps you only tell them about the best parts of the relationships and are afraid to share the parts you are embarrassed about. This is a sign that you are avoiding the facts.

Unhappy Relationships

It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as an abusive or controlling relationships. It might just be an unhappy relationship that you feel stuck in.

More than one woman I talked to recalls having serious concerns as she approached her wedding day. She downplayed her concerns and the possible pot holes in the road ahead. She propped up the stories of optimism and hope and forced her self to focus her attention on her hopes. This way she could deny the feeling in her gut until after the wedding. Eventually reality hit and shattered her illusions.

Optimistic about Money

A similar dynamic occurs when we invest money in a stock and then watch it sink. There is a temptation to tell your self; “It will turn around. I’ll wait for it to come back to my buy price and then sell it so I don’t have a loss.” If someone asks, “Why don’t you sell it?” The answer might be, “I don’t want to lose money on this investment.” They some how feel better believing they haven’t lost any money. They imagine that their money is still there even though the value has dropped.

In spite of feeling better temporarily you are paralyzed into being poorer by your illusions of optimism. Later the judge and victim in the mind may kick in and you will be tempted to believe self criticisms for such behavior. This can lead to a downward emotional spiral.

The High Price of Optimism

The philosophy of facing the brutal facts is crystallized with Jim Collins’ interview of Admiral James Stockdale. Adm. Stockdale was the highest ranking POW in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. He was tortured multiple times during his eight year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973.

Jim Collins found him self getting depressed just reading the story of Adm. Stockdale’s imprisonment. Collins had the opportunity to ask Stockdale about his experience and how he maintained his spirits and attitude during his ordeal. It was Adm. Stockdale’s answer that helped Jim Collins clarify the dangers of optimism and how it obscures our ability to face the facts that can lead to great success.

“”If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?

I never lost faith in the end of the story, he said, when I asked him. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

I didnt say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, Who didnt make it out?

Oh, thats easy, he said. The optimists.

The optimists? I dont understand, I said, now completely confused, given what hed said a hundred meters earlier.

The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ˜Were going to be out by Christmas. And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then theyd say, ˜Were going to be out by Easter. And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end”which you can never afford to lose”with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

“To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: Were not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!

(Reference http://jimcollins.com/lab/brutalFacts/index.html)  Link to page no longer active

The important point I want to make is that there are different forms of optimism. Being aware of the subtle differences between forms and attitudes of optimism can be the difference between great success and emotional denial. Choose your form of optimism wisely.

For insights on awareness listen to the free mp3 audio in the podcast area. For exercises and practices on increasing awareness, controlling emotions, and changing core beliefs start with the free audio in the Self Mastery Program.

8 Responses to “Being Optimistic”


  1. 1 Today is that Day Jul 30th, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    Gary,

    You bring up some great points in this post, and I agree that there are people out there who are “blindly optimistic”. However, true optimism is not characterized by hoping for the best, but rather being optimistic REGARDLESS of the situation.

    Certainly being tortured is a lot harder to be optimistic about than dodging potholes while driving down the road, but optimism is about making the most of a situation, not ignoring the fact that the situation exists.

    Those are 2 different concepts. Ignoring the potholes or the torture will not make those things go away, but keeping a strong spirit and a belief that all will be well in the end is what optimism is really about.

    – Aaron

  2. 2 Gary Jul 30th, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    Part of my not so clear point is that there are different kinds of optimism. Jim Collins calls it the Stockdale Paradox. Having the awareness to notice the difference is what will make the difference in your endeavors.

  3. 3 Nick Pagan Aug 20th, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    I agree with the content of your article only I would simply refer to what you write of as pragmatism. We do best by looking at our reality straight in the face, by discovering the true cause of our problems (not the ‘in your face’ symptoms) and by creating solutions that come forth from what we find ourselves capable of doing right now and not when our ship comes in.

    All emotions derive from the difference between our desired results and our results in reality. When a real result does not match our desire then we feel negative emotions. When a real result exceeds our desires then we feel unexpectedly positive emotions. Since most people spend their time feeling bad you can quickly guess how realistic most people’s desires are.

  4. 4 Patricia - Spiritual Journey Of A Lightworker Sep 6th, 2007 at 4:32 am

    My philosophy has always been to take what life throws at you and make the most out of it. Call it what you will. It works for me. My life has not been easy. I am thankful for the challenges that I have survived. I am a stronger, more compassionate person because of the challenges.

  5. 5 Gary Sep 6th, 2007 at 4:55 am

    Nick,,,,

    I agree that what I am advocating is pragmatism. I’m also pointing out that it is often missed by people following the hype of optimism.

    I’ll agree with you that most emotions are created by the disparity between their imagination and reality. However not all of them. When you gain mastery over your mind you can dispense with misplaced expectations. You can also generate your emotions at will, just out of choice to do so. In that way you can be happy all the time.

  6. 6 Adam Aug 27th, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    This article defenetely oponed my eyes. I myself have been dealing with this exact issue of denial about my financial situation and am now facing the reality . The mind even took it as far as dening that i was in denial. However i have a question? What if by some crazy turn of events things did not work out in the end and stocksdale did not survive then what would that mean for his faith in coming out alive and becoming triumphent in the end.Can you ever truly be sure or is it best to have faith and do your best to achieve the outcome?

  7. 7 Gary Aug 28th, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Stockdale’s observations are principally of people who didn’t survive the challenging hardship and why. It was basically their faith in an illusion. It was a positive, optimistic, outcome, but it wasn’t based in reality. It was an illusion. The emotional cycle of heartbreak was a factor in causing them to give up.

    If Adm. Stockdale did not make it, it would mean nothing. For starters he would not have the story to tell of his observations.

    Second, you can have an unbending intent, not believe in illusions, and still not survive. There are other forces at work other than a person’s intent and focus. What his point is that not believing in illusions that are overly optimistic makes a difference to your life in a positive way.

  1. 1 Carnival of Sales & Management Success - September 11, 2007 « Brad M. Trnavsky - Sales & Management Blogger Pingback on Sep 11th, 2007 at 9:32 pm
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