Facing Reality: Are you a Rational Optimist or Unrealistic Pessimist?

Perspective and realityA few years ago, I ran into an old colleague I hadn’t seen for a while. Our short conversation confirmed just why I hadn’t seen him in a while. I greeted him with, “Hey Phil. How’s it going?” His response was, “Oh, you know; same crap, different day.” He then proceeded to proudly pile up the most recent crap in his life and invited me to wallow in it with him.

Our world does have lots of crap. There’s plenty of injustice, inequality, and unfairness. The crap that hits the fan in life is often not evenly distributed. But we can decide whether to stand in it or not. We decide if we want today to be crappy or happy. If we walk around with our “crap glasses” on, we’ll see lots of it. The more crap we look for, the more crap we see. The more crap we see, the more we look for. Author, speaker, and psychologist, Peter Jensen calls this “opticalrectumitis,” which he loosely translates as “having a shi…(crappy) outlook on life.”

The American Heritage Dictionary provides these definitions of the glasses we can choose to wear:

Pessimism

  1. A tendency to stress the negative or unfavorable or to take the gloomiest possible view.
  2. The doctrine or belief that this is the worst of all possible worlds and that all things ultimately tend toward evil.
  3. The doctrine or belief that the evil in the world outweighs the good.

Optimism

  1. A tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.
  2. The doctrine that this world is the best of all possible worlds.
  3. The belief that the universe is improving and that good will ultimately triumph over evil.

Scientist, journalist, and author, Matt Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves lays out a powerful argument in nearly 500 pages of meticulous research for how much better our world has become — and how the good is speeding up.  He writes, “I am a rational optimist: rational, because I have arrived at optimism not through temperament or instinct, but by looking at the evidence… the world is as good a place to live as it has ever been for the average human being.”

19th Century historian and politician, Thomas Babington Macauley, once asked “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” We’re surrounded by prophets of doom spreading the pessimism plague. It’s a deadly disease that’s now well proven to reduce our happiness and well-being.

Ridley’s research led him to conclude, “For 200 years pessimists have had all the headlines, even though optimists have far more often been right. Archpessimists are feted, showered with honors and rarely challenged, let alone confronted with their past mistakes…. if you say catastrophe is imminent, you may expect a McArthur genius award or even the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Charities don’t raise money and journalists don’t get their stories on the front page by focusing on what’s going well. Good news is no news. Which is why “the media go to great lengths to search even the most cheerful of statistics for glimmers of doom.”

Tomorrow we publish my December blogs in the January issue of The Leader Letter. To help you get real and kick off your new year on notes of optimism and positivity, face the positive facts in this issue countering the endless stream of negative “news.” You’ll also find year end reflections to begin your new year. This is a good beginning point for looking at the strategic use of time for you and your leadership team. And you may find a few seasonal lessons from Scrooge with help in reflecting and planning how to make the best use of the year ahead.

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