The Problem with Optimism

I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile. It’s not at all that I think pessimism, or pessimism’s disguised cousin, cynicism, are good things. Nor is this about rose-covered glasses, per se. It’s actually about the more important topic of truly feeling that you can be yourself with others and don’t have to pretend that you are feeling better or worse than you really do — and what comes of that. Let me share an example.

I was doing some brief work with a newly forming, high-powered group of experienced managers and consultants. Their project was worth millions and they would be working for at least a year together in order to complete it on-time and in budget. I used the team trust survey I developed to help them think about their idea of what a good team might be and where they saw the group as it got started. Most of the players knew each other and there had been a few preliminary meetings. The survey suggested that one of the group members had an extremely positive view of the group while most others saw it in a forming stage, a good team on an important developmental incline. Exploring this difference in scores with the high rater she commented, “Well, I don’t want to get bogged down in too many discussions about problems. I just want to focus on the work.”

In essence, I believe the high rating was her way of saying, “I don’t want to talk about the team.” Too messy — and maybe a little too far out of control.

Given a strong personality, others can be beat up for “pulling the group down.” But guess what? As a consequence of being berated in this way, they often feel worse about the team, and about themselves.

The most challenging scenario, however, is the one in which I try to bully myself in this way, often becoming exceptionally prescriptive to others. It’s easy to find these self-esteem oriented, “buck up and be terrific” messages on the net. Don’t be down, whining, or self-pitying. Things are not so bad! We become so good at undermining negativity in others by claiming it is their problem, that we may not notice how much it’s also become ours.

A few years ago I worked with a senior health care team. The census (number of beds in use) kept sliding each month. In fact, each month it was lower than had been predicted the previous month. Yet the senior group kept arguing within itself, divided between the optimists and the naysayers. The optimists kept winning right up until the Board stepped in, requiring the CEO to fix the situation in a way that left a third of the managers out of work, including several members of the senior team itself! There were really two problems, as I’m sure you can notice: the census and the argument.

You see what I’m saying here — optimism for optimism’s sake can be a cover-up, a form of denial, and also a form of control. I don’t want to hear the problems can be the mother of all problems — all by itself.

Now it’s certainly true that a constant focus on the problems also can be a big drag. And pessimism for pessimism’s sake can also be a form of control. There have been many times when I’ve stepped into a group’s exchange to observe how very dark things seem to be getting and to encourage people to look at their stuckness from other vantage points.

The real problem is wanting things to be simple. And my point here is that optimism can be just as guilty of wanting things simple and in our power as the downside view. Neither is real.

At an event lately I sat with two other people as we talked about seminal moments in our separate lives; moments when just a slight change of direction resulted in a major shift in destination over time. Two of the stories had to do with significant adjustments in work or career; one had to do with lifestyle. And what was particularly interesting is that each of these little changes that became big ones started from an uncomfortable experience. In one case, it was a conversation that seemed particularly empty; in another frustration with being able to carry out technical projects effectively; in a third, mine, a sense of dismay and sorrow. Each launched a renewing, transforming change in our lives.


Huh? You mean the acknowledgment of difficulty was also the starting point for transformation? No big surprise there — let’s see, I think that one’s been going on from the beginning of time. Yet maybe we should be careful in assuming transformation is a desired thing — and maybe the deal about unwavering optimism and pessimism, both those sides of ourselves, is exactly the reluctance to transform, to deeply trust and live in continuing transformation.

Not all problems have solutions, or at least easy ones. Not all solutions have problems, or at least major ones. We live in the gray space in between, and just so, there are so many beautiful shades of gray we may miss the very image that is forming, perhaps something we’ve never experienced before, painted as skillfully as an unfolding flower or a random splash of ink.

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One Comment

  • […] *New Angle on Optimism…”optimism can be just as guilty of wanting things simple and in our power as the downside view. Neither is real. maybe the deal about unwavering optimism and pessimism, both those sides of ourselves, is exactly the reluctance to transform, to deeply trust and live in continuing transformation.”  To read the entire post, gently click here […]

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