Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The two faces of Optimism

I've often been accused of being a pessimist.

I'm actually not. Far from it, I truly am an optimist. The problem seems to be that often people use the word "optimist" to mean something quite different to my (accepted) understanding of the word; and so, not agreeing with their worldview, they label me as a pessimist.

I think the real issue stems from divergent ways of viewing the term.

There are two definitions in common use.

A world of abundance

First is the one that I subscribe to. Optimism, for me, is to see a world of abundance, rather than a sea of troubles.

I believe that there is a solution to every problem (even if the solution is to throw out the old game and find new rules) and that anyone has the ability to get through the problems and find their dreams. Nobody is a lost cause and there is plenty of abundance to go around.

For me, that is optimism.

*You're* not an optimist

The other view I generally see in the pejorative sense. I can best explain by example:

You don't agree that my <* patently-impossible or highly-improbable *> plan will succeed, That's because you're just not an optimist!

I guess I'm just not a yes-man

Let me be clear: It's not "optimism" to be in deep denial about the efficacy of your plan, and I am not a "pessimist" just because I have looked at the numbers and found that they don't add up quite as well as what you hope them to be. I simply don't agree with you.

I am not a pessimist because I believe that *this* solution of yours won't work. I am an optimist because I believe that there *is* a solution, and that we will find it if we keep trying.

Optimism and employee relations

This issue often crops up at its most pathological in employee relations. In my experience, this is because there's a certain breed of manager that simply doesn't want to hear anything negative - even if it's the facts surrounding a potential solution. If solutions to a problem are proposed, then the most optimistic *sounding* solution will often win, regardless of actual likelihood of being the correct fit. Any nay-sayer to the offered solution will simply be dismissed as a curmudgeon, and thereafter will often be viewed as a "troublemaker".

As human folly goes, if the plan then fails, the nay-sayer is hardly likely to receive any recognition for having pointed out the potential... in fact, if the subject is ever brought up again, greater dislike is sure to follow - nobody likes being told "I told you so", especially on the heels of defeat.

More often than not, however, the initial solution will not fail miserably, but will simply provide sub-optimal results. The originator of the idea will be convinced that it was the best that could possibly have been achieved and that you were clearly a pessimist to think that it could fail...

Trust me... there is no point to trying to persuade them that your idea could have been better.

So, what to do?

The only way out of this dilemma is to make sure that instead of simply taking pot-shots at a bad idea, always provide an alternative solution that you can show is more likely to work. In this way you can show that you are optimistic about solving the problem, just not about the particular solution on the table. It's even better if you can reuse aspects of the original solution in your own - to show that the first proposal wasn't all bad, just needs re-alignment... but this isn't always possible.

It's certainly not a guaranteed solution. The first idea may well not be removed from the state of play - and may still be valued seeming more optimistic (ie providing a promise of a better end-solution... even if not more likely to succeed). This is even more likely to happen if the solution has been championed by a manager in an environment where Highest Paid Opinion wins reigns supreme). However, offering a solution will show that you are presenting a positive outlook, and you're less likely to be tarred as strongly with the pessimist/troublemaker brush. You show that at least you are trying to be helpful.

Of course... in some environments it still makes little difference, and even a dissenting opinion will brand you.

In this case, my suggestion is to be an optimist and trust that the world will get along in the end, and that perhaps there might be bigger, better places for you... if you choose to go looking for them. :)



In reaction to them, I'll often tell them that I am a "realist" - which unfortunately makes them just snort and underscore the "pessimist" label in their heads. After all, I've found that a lot of optimists don't know the difference. Of course, mainly I'm just playing with their heads. :)


Sorry, "yes-woman" just sounds stupid, so I won't use it regardless of the truth of my actual sex; And I will bite anybody that suggests that I use "yes-person" :P

1 comment:

Taryn said...

Hi Quetzalcoatl,
Can't guess from the name, actually, could be one of a few ;)
I don't remember anybody in particular rubbishing what I did in uni.

however... this comment appears to be more of a personal note than an actual reply to my post... so I'm actually going to remove it. I love to get back in touch with my old uni friends, so please email me! :)