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 Don‘t 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 and emotions 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.
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 didn‘t 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 didn‘t make it out?“
“Oh, that‘s easy,“ he said. “The optimists.”
“The optimists? I don‘t understand,“ I said, now completely confused, given what he‘d said a hundred meters earlier.
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, “˜We‘re going to be out by Christmas.‘ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they‘d say, “˜We‘re 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: “We‘re 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 podcast audio in the podcast area. For exercises and practices on increasing awareness, controlling emotions, and changing core beliefs start with the flessons in the Self Mastery Program.