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Optimism, pessimism and reality - Part 2

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Part 1 of Optimism, pessimism and reality focussed on the potential pitfalls of a generally pessimistic approach to life. Today, I’m going to look at the optimist view, and continue with personal examples of where this has worked, and not worked, for me.

Earlier this month, I wrote that “ the optimist expects the good thing anyway, and, at best, will shrug off any other result, operating under the belief that a positive outlook will help to create the positive outcome itself, therefore generating more positive things than would otherwise occur.” I alluded to this in the blog on luck as well (see here), feeling that as I’d behaved in a positive way, positive stuff had happened.

I still firmly support that view. Our feelings and approaches are infectious, and will have an effect on the people we meet and interact with, whether we like it or not. The important part is to become and be conscious of this, and this applies particularly for me directly when I’m running management training courses, as well as forming part of the content of those training programmes.

Last time, in my first example of the potential negative impact of pessimism, I used my sub-optimal approach to cold-calling. But are there potential negative impacts of optimism as well. Yes, if you’re not careful...

Walking - and my optimist’s view

Friends, family, it’s now time to bare my soul and admit my failings in this regard. I may have spent the last 30+ years denying this, but I cannot do so any longer - I’m a hopelessly irrational optimist when it comes to walking (or outdoor activities in general).

My most repeated phrases on walks or hikes are a selection, if not all of, the following:

“It’s not far now”
“This is the last hill”
“The weather is brightening up over there”
“We’ll be back in time”
“The rest of the walk is much easier”
“Tomorrow’s trip is much much shorter”
“We’ll be in a sheltered spot soon”

...and so on, ad nauseum...

From my point of view, this is not particularly serious stuff, and, although the friends and family referred to above may agree to differ, doesn’t have a hugely negative impact on anyone (I’m waiting for the comments with baited breath...).

It does however serve to illustrate how a positive, optimistic approach can be as unhelpful, if badly applied, as a pessimistic one.

Firstly, there is a risk of a long term undermining of people’s belief in you. If you continue to expound a positive, optimistic outlook despite all evidence to the contrary, and without making any noticeable effort to take that evidence into account, your views are likely to be taken less seriously over time, and your opinion be less sought after. This means that even when your natural optimism is both useful and helpful, it is more likely to be disregarded.

In the example above, I now have to show maps to people to prove how long walks are, where the hills are and how far we have left to go before they’ll believe me.

Secondly, there is the risk that others might feel I’m not taking their thoughts and feelings into consideration. It’s one thing to ignore simple, factual evidence, but the impact on building rapport and relationships with others if they feel that you are not taking their perspective into account cannot be underestimated.

In the example above, certain friends struggle to understand why I don’t take their difficulty in taking a pushchair up a mountain seriously enough - in the absence of other things, it could damage our relationship.

Finally, it is possible that optimism allows you to take risks that are avoidable and unnecessary. I’m all for taking risks in certain situations, but there are times and places for these. Simply assuming that “everything will be OK” and not ever making any preparation for a non-positive outcome can range from silly to downright dangerous.

I have ended numerous walks in the dark and rain without a torch - a (potentially) dangerous thing to do if taken to extremes.

Untrammelled optimism can therefore damage your potential to positively impact on others, your relationships and rapport with others, and be so distorting of your own view of the world that you fall into easily avoidable traps.


The next entry in this series on optimism, pessimism and reality will look at the final part - is a realistic approach (even assuming we know what one is) really the holy grail we’re looking for?

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