While pessimism helps us avoid unnecessary risk, optimism helps us soar to success.
While investigating high performance, I came across the idea of irrational optimism. Matthew Syed attributes to Arsene Wenger, of Arsenal FC fame, the statement: "No top performer has lacked this capacity for irrational optimism…the ability to remove doubt from his mind." In other words, you do not consider the possibility of failure when you're being irrationally optimistic. Why irrational? Because, naturally, in any significant endeavor, there is always a possibility of failure. The irrational optimism is in having no doubt about your future success.
Recent research findings tell us that being pessimistic may help the elderly live longer. Of course I want people to live longer. What troubles me is the idea that if we consider optimism to be irrational in certain situations, we may conclude that optimism is bad. In the case of aging, with a little pessimism you may take better care of your health, seeing doctors and getting needed treatment. You may be more careful, avoiding risks, unlike your more optimistic counterpart. We've actually known this for awhile. Some years ago we learned that people who suffer with depression can be more realistic in their pessimistic outlooks. Argh.
I'm going to stick with Wenger and say there's a time and a place for everything. You don't want to be that cockeyed optimist who thinks they don't need a helmet while riding a bike because you're not going to have an accident. You don't want to quite your job because you are so great at what you do that you know you'll get another one yesterday.
Being cautious in some situations is sensible, but it doesn't mean you have to go through life with constant worry and self-doubt. There are many opportunities to adopt a little irrational optimism to get you through a challenge with less angst.
• Dating someone new? Anticipate having a great time. Why not? Worst case scenario, you're a little disappointed. You still walk away knowing you gave it your best shot.
• Meeting a difficult friend for dinner? Hope for the best and try to keep things light and positive. You don't have anything to lose by trying to have fun. Your friend may walk away ever difficult, but you feel good about showing up as a good friend.
• Giving an old talk to a new audience or a new talk to a familiar audience? Imagine your best presentation and feel confident you can do it again. Along with solid preparation, use that confidence in this new situation.
• Going to your first ballroom dancing class? Picture yourself floating on air, mastering every move and each new step with ease. Enjoy learning something new. So what if you misstep or crunch a toe here or there?
• Have a creative new idea? Project that idea into the future and see what it looks like. Then try to make it happen. Sure you identify the pitfalls and address them. But when you think positive you don't let doubt and uncertainty stop you.
• Running your first marathon? Take a few cleansing breaths and believe you're going to do it. Know that once you start running you're going to keep going until you hit the finish line.
Is it rational to expect to succeed in new and challenging situations? Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. But if you've prepared in the best way you can, after that it's almost always most helpful to leave your doubts and worries at the door and go for it. And I can vouch for the marathon; irrational optimism works.