You could describe me as a Pessimistic Optimist or an Optimistic Pessimist. Either way, my mother is responsible for the ‘glass half empty attitude’ that I have spent most of my life trying to overcome. “Never expect anything nice to happen, darling, and then when it does, you’ll get a pleasant surprise’ was her counsel. I guess that, deep down, she was only trying to protect me from the disappointments that life brings but, looking back, I really wish she had taught me how to be more resilient and tough in the face of adversity, rather than wrapped me in cotton wool. But we can’t blame everything on our parents, even though Philip Larkin would have us believe otherwise.
It came as no surprise to me to learn the significance of optimism as an attribute of highly successful leaders. Martyn Newman, author of ‘Emotional Capitalists – the New Leaders’ writes: “Optimism is perhaps the most important quality you can develop to achieve greater success as a leader. Optimism differentiates high performing leaders from the rest. Not just ‘the glass is half full’ kind of optimism, but optimism as a strategy – a way of dealing with difficulties and sensing opportunities. Optimistic leaders can see the big picture and have a vision of where they are going. They are characterised by three attitudes. First, they look for the benefit in every situation, especially when they experience setbacks. No matter what happens, they are committed to finding answers and possess a confident expectation of success. Second, optimists seek the valuable lesson in every problem or difficulty. Rather than focusing all energy on the deal just lost, the optimist thinks about what to do differently next time around. Third, optimistic leaders focus on the task to be accomplished rather than on negative emotions such as disappointment or fear. They see the possibilities within the task. Optimism and resilience in the face of adversity are the greatest long-term predictors of success for individuals and organisations. An overwhelming body of research demonstrates that optimists perform better at work, regularly outperform the predictions of aptitude tests, have greater resistance to colds and other illnesses, and they recover faster from illness and injury. Optimists also make considerably more money!”
Optimists are lovely people to have around generally – they see possibilities where others see obstacles, they see the big picture when everyone else is fussing about the details, they’re usually great motivators. Look around you – who lights up the office when they come in? My bet is they’ll be optimists. You’ll spot the pessimists easily – they’re the ones who bring the mood down and zap everyone’s energy.
Now, the big question is: Can you learn to be more optimistic? Well, the good news is…yes, you can! Here’s how:
Firstly, optimism is all about how we define events in our heads, our explanatory style. If we can learn to define positive events as being the result of something we did, a sign of more good things to come and/or evidence that good things will happen in other areas of our lives, we’re halfway there. If we can also think of negative events as not our fault, or isolated occurrences that have no bearing on anything else, we’re sorted!
So, are you an optimist or a pessimist? Take the Optimism Quiz and see how you turn out. Didn’t do so well? Here are some tips to help you practice the skill of being more optimistic:
- The key to optimism is to maximise your successes and minimise your failures.
- Be honest with yourself about the things you don’t do so well and make a plan to work on them
- Equally, be clear about your strengths and maximise the use of them whenever you can.
- Practice, practice, practice. The more you check and challenge your thought patterns, the more automatic it’ll become. It may take a while but keep persevering.
- Enrol your colleagues, family and friends in noting any negative comments, to help you raise awareness of your ‘explanatory style’
- Remember that almost all failures can be a learning experience, and an important step toward your next success!
- Practice making positive statements about what you’re aiming for, as if it was already true. For example, saying “I’m feeling more in control” rather than “I want to be more in control” helps to programme your subconscious mind to believe that’s already happening.
Should I be wishing you luck? I don’t think so – who was it who said ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get’? No, I’ll leave you with an earworm and these immortal words from Monty Python:
If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle – that’s the thing.
And…always look on the bright side of life…