“Fighting the mind does not work. What works best is learning to focus it.”
― W. Timothy Gallwey, The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance
I believe my life, the lives of my loved ones, friends and clients will be better off due to the difficulties this year.
I recognize I’ve set myself up to be mocked by the pessimists of the world. Dare to say everything will be okay in the middle of a pandemic; to project a brighter future as thousands of workers are laid off; imagine mutual respect and justice when racial tensions run high; believe in the health of our planet while fires ravage the California landscape.
Pessimism is attractive to us as a species because of negativity bias. Our brains are wired to be vigilant for threats in the environment, real or perceived, for our survival. Studies show that adults pay attention to, learn from and use negative information much more than positive.
While negativity can protect us from potential dangers, it also blocks us from potential gains. Positivity researchers Michelle Gielan and Shawn Achor found that optimistic people are 40% more likely to get promoted, six times more likely to be highly engaged at work and five times less likely to burnout than pessimists.
Given the choice, I’d rather focus my mind on gaining something greater despite the risks instead of settling for less because of them.
Last month, Morgan Housel, former columnist at The Motley Fool and the Wall Street Journal, published The Psychology of Money. The book explores different patterns in the way people think about money and risk.
One chapter discusses the appeal of pessimism, especially with finances. Generally, pessimists look at negative economic trends and conclude dire outcomes without considering how markets can adapt and evolve. This failure to see how innovation and creativity in the face of adversity can change the economy’s trajectory reinforces the allure of negativity bias. This same miscalculation happens not only in matters of money but in every area of our lives.
Enter the idea of rational optimism
If you look at history, things do tend to work out in the end. The U.S. did rebound from the Great Depression and the 2008 financial crises. The world flourished after World War II. Post defeat, even the Japanese recovered with an economic miracle that grew their economy 15 times the size it was before the war.
In his book, Housel clarifies that hardships, sometimes severe ones, are part of a sensible optimism. He writes, “Optimism is usually defined as a belief that things will go well. But that’s incomplete. Sensible Optimism is a belief that the odds are in your favor, and over time things will balance out to a good outcome even if what happens in between is filled with misery. And in fact, you know it will be filled with misery.”
Rational optimism is a broad rather than narrow perspective of life. Michelle Gielan defines it this way. “Rational optimism is being able to take a realistic assessment of the present moment while maintaining a belief that our behavior matters, especially in the face of challenges.” Gielan walks her talk. She quit her dream job as an anchor at CBS News to study positive psychology because she was disturbed by news broadcasts’ negativity.
Why rational optimism works
This broader perspective, which takes our behavior into account, means we have a lot of influence over our destinies. Our actions, fueled by our thoughts and emotions, play an integral part in positive outcomes despite dismal circumstances. How we choose to think, speak and act in response to turbulent times is our superpower.
As you put rational optimism into practice, three exciting things will happen:
You will retrain the Reticular Activating System (RAS) in your brain. The RAS is a set of neural pathways developed over time by your self-talk and habits. The RAS controls your subconscious and filters what’s important for you to be aware of to stay safe. Negativity bias suggests that many of us have set up the RAS to filter negative information for our safety. However, you can retrain it to filter positive input to make choices based on a balance of optimistic and pessimistic data.
You will be more prepared to handle the inevitable hardships that come with creating long-term success. Your realistic view of life’s ups and downs as a regular part of ultimately good outcomes strengthens your resilience. It will be easier to make tougher choices for sustainable results rather than quick-fix hacks for short term relief.
Additionally, you will enjoy your work and life more because you will be less stressed. With a balanced view of difficulties, you free up a lot of mental and emotional energy previously consumed by fear, anxiety and worry. The idea that you are completely helpless or victimized fades from your radar. You become more relaxed.
How to be a rational optimist
If you want to give rational optimism a try, here’s how to do it. Try to balance negative information by consciously looking for its positive opposite. Empower yourself to make more educated choices by offsetting the pervading pessimism with its optimistic counterpart. It seems simple but so few of us do it in times of distress.
Here are three steps to master stressful situations with a more sensible eye. They are the essence of my coaching process. Rational optimism is how I help my clients move forward.
- Define what positive outcome you want for the future and the evidence you have that it’s possible.
- Be realistic about the external and internal (mental and emotional) obstacles that can hinder your achievement.
- Design an action-oriented plan that moves you towards your goal and also prepares you with strategies to navigate those obstacles.
As a rational optimist, I recognize we are in the middle of an unprecedented year of turmoil and uncertainty. At the same time, I’ve taken my behavior seriously. I’ve focused on professional and personal growth, committed to strengthing my immune system and designed practical remote workshops and networking. I’ve also helped myself and others be more authentic, respectful and empathetic in candid discussions about politics, equality and race.
I might get mocked for my rational optimism, but that’s okay. I’ve been made fun of before. I’m still standing and more importantly, I continue to smile.
Action tips for working your Inner Genius
Explore these questions for increased self-awareness to bolster authentic success and happiness.
- Are you more of a pessimist or optimist? How has this view helped or hindered you?
- What do you need to do to find the balance of rational optimism?
- What is one of your current goals? How much of an action plan do you have in place with strategies for moving forward and navigating obstacles?
Thanks for reading. Until next week,