You have to admit that over the past few weeks it has been hard to be “optimistic” in the face of the wild and often depressing headlines. Whether we’re facing the wild gyrations of the world’s capital markets, the inane politically motivated debates in Washington, the desperate famine conditions in Somalia, or the riots in Brixton, there seems very little to be “optimistic“ about! In the midst of these realities, it has struck me that now more than ever, we need to take a moment to discuss the importance of maintaining “Optimism” as a priority for leadership and life.
When I use the word “optimism”, I want to refresh ourselves on the dictionary definition:
” Hopefulness and confidence about the future or successful outcome of something”
This is not some “Pollyannaish”, pie-in-the-sky, naïve view of the world. There are three key words in the definition, hopefulness / confidence / future, that are at the center of my thinking and in how I believe we can all apply “optimism” to our daily realities in our work and our lives.
Optimism in the face of challenges
It is often when facing challenges that we understandably are the least optimistic. How many times have you thought, “How can I/we handle this?” when facing a challenge at work. Similarly, when facing issues in our personal lives, so often the road ahead appears unclear at best. It’s in these moments that I want to encourage a quick “optimism exercise.” Take a moment and recall/write down a list of the challenges/barriers/problems that you, or your business, or your family, have faced over the past few years. Once that list is compiled, add the actions and outcomes, aligned to each “challenge/issue”, that actually occurred. I am often surprised how the major issues of the past seem so handle able and achievable in hindsight. That same truth applies to the challenges of today. If we approach our challenges of today with focus, energy, capability, and optimism, they will likely be overcome as were the challenges of the past.
Optimism in the face of opportunities
In a slightly different light than the example above, there are times that the breadth of opportunities or options in a circumstance can be debilitating rather than energizing. Whether faced by a thriving and growing business, a child with numerous education options, a parent who has their health AND adequate retirement savings, or many other situations, it is important to start with perspective. It’s a blessing, an honor and a treat to have options and opportunities. Do not let this dynamic slow you down, be optimistic about your options. Rather than trying to make “the perfect” decision/choice, focus on making a good/great choice, and I am confident that those good/great choices will amplify your opportunities in the future. Take advantage of opportunities, they are often rare and fleeting moments. Be optimistic as you use these opportunity moments to maximize the potential of a “future or successful outcome of something.”
Optimism in the face of others
While the discussions above may seem straightforward enough, I want to add another element. How many times have you been faced with an issue/problem and rather than easily having a quiet moment to gather your thoughts privately, you are surrounded by the worried eyes of your team, your department, your company, or your family. All of those eyes looking to you to gauge your reaction. If you freak out, it will certainly have an impact, possibly starting a brushfire of panic. It’s in those moments that I remind myself of “PBR” (Pause, Breath, and Reconnect: see earlier essay of same name). If possible slow down the situation and “work the problem.” I often find it helpful to deploy the team to clarify the issue and build options in moments like this. That historic phrase, “Idle hands are the devils workshop,” is good to remember. Keep your team/company/family busy as you work to clarify the situation and begin making a game plan for the required actions ahead.
Optimism for the future
If you’re honest with yourself, what do you hope for the future? What do you aspire the future to be for your kids, your team, or your company? I think most of us want the future to be bright for those we care about. I think most of us want our businesses to thrive after we move on to other challenges. Especially today in the midst of such acrimonious debate about our country’s finances, it seems that the political parties have so little common ground. But is that actually true? It may be naïve to think that regardless of party, the individual congress men and women want to leave this county better for their children or grandchildren. We all have in common the truth that our walk on this earth is amazingly short and we’ve been given a chance to have an impact, let’s do that with an optimistic eye to the future.
In closing I want to quote former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” This idea that optimism can and will enhance the impact and success of an organization rings deeply true to me. The idea of “perpetual optimism”, the concept that an optimistic outlook and approach is not episodic, but continual or uninterrupted, is powerful and challenging. The question isn’t whether we will face challenges/issues/problems/setbacks in our work or our lives; we will! The opportunity for all of us it to face these moments with an eye to an “optimistic” approach, always working to have our approach be guided by the facts of the moment AND the possibilities that lie ahead.