An optimist was once defined as a fellow who believes that a housefly is looking for a way to get out! Well, that’s maybe ‘silly’ optimism. Expressing some humour, James Branch Cabell (The Silver Stallion) said: “The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true”. True optimism, however, could be described as hopefulness – a confidence about the future or success in something. Optimism is a mental attitude that expects the best possible outcome from any given situation. Without rejecting the realities and constraints of human ability, the optimist accepts failures and learns from them – the same of which encourage further pursuits of achievement. The optimist understands that the terrain is tough, that there are many obstacles, but is willing to take the journey, even if alone. The optimist has a sense of self-efficacy – the belief that whatever adversity needs to be faced, he or she has the ability to overcome or conquer any obstacle and reach set goals.
Many say, however, that one has to be realistic – that one can’t look past the state of the world with all its problems and pain; that the inevitability of calamity, hardship and adversity is fact and that there is not much that one can do about it all. Optimism and realism, however, are not mutually exclusive – although crediting importance to the reality of the world and its happenings (realism), the optimist uses creativity and ingenuity to forge ahead and stay upbeat about the future. Jerry Jao, CEO and entrepreneur, notes in his comments for Forbes: “As a start-up founder and CEO, my leadership philosophy is to be 60% realistic and 40% optimistic. My dominant realism allows me to stay humble and make decisions based on facts, rather than on gut-feelings or aspirations. I also recognise, however, that entrepreneurs don’t achieve success without taking risks and my optimism enables me to take those risks and move forward despite uncertainties. It’s important to trust that all of your blood, sweat and tears will pay off and that’s where optimism best serves weary start-up entrepreneurs”.
Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography (Long Walk to Freedom), when faced with excessive adversity, commented: “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way leads to defeat and death”. Mandela’s optimism achieved great results for South Africa and mankind as a whole.
Optimism’s opposite, pessimism, is concerned about what may go wrong. Pessimists are worried that even the things they have will be taken from them by some cruel twist of fate. They emphasise the unpredictability of life and that plans usually don’t work out. A new line of research, however, suggests that both optimists and pessimists use their differing viewpoints to motivate themselves. To cope with life’s unpredictable nature, some of us choose to think optimistically because it helps motivate us to try and try again. For others, a pessimistic mind-set performs the same function. By thinking about what might go wrong, pessimism helps protect them when things do go wrong. So, the research suggests that both the optimistic and pessimistic standpoints are working in service of motivation – each provides a protective buffer against what Shakespeare called ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. Whether the research is proved to be accurate or not, we all need some motivation in order to attempt to make a meaningful contribution in spite of difficulties which may stand in the way. We need it and our world needs it. Howard Zinn notes: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasise in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. If we do act in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvellous victory”.
‘Being optimistic in the face of adversity’ means living in the present with hope – taking steps to make a meaningful contribution “in defiance of all that is bad around us”. This requires optimistic self-efficacy and self-leadership.