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The Optimism Trap

Feel-Good Elixir

Most motivational speakers and success gurus pump positive about optimism. The sage advice: When the going gets tough, think of things you are grateful for. Never lose hope; this too shall pass. Stay  cheery; and don’t forget to smile a lot, even if you have to “fake it until you make it.”

Sorry, but your cup ain’t any better half full than half empty; instead the amount contained is what it is-about half.

Personally, I don’t care much for that phrase.  Faking it is fake.  And looking solely at the proverbial bright side discounts a critical skill– observing things for what they are, not what we want them to be in our heads.   Sorry, but your cup ain’t any better half full than half empty; instead the amount contained is what it is-about half.

Sure, the power of positive thinking has its place. Many experts make the happy case.  But like any feel-good elixir, unbridled optimism can backfire. Too much of it impairs us and can do more damage than good.

Broken Hearts

Consider this poignant account offered by Jim Collins, author of the classic business tome Good to Great.  While preparing the book, Collins was keen to study the role of optimistic management thinkers. Collins’ initial theory—which was precisely incorrect—was that the most successful company leaders tend to be optimists.

As part of his research, he interviewed, Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was highest ranking Naval officer held as prisoner of war in Vietnam. Stockdale was in captivity and tortured by the Vietcong for nearly eight years. Collins recalls:

“I asked Stockdale: ‘Who didn’t make it out of the camps?’ And he said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. It was the optimists. They were the ones who said we were going to be out by Christmas. And then they said we’d be out by Easter and then out by Fourth of July and out by Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again.’ Then Stockdale turned to me and said, ‘You know, I think they all died of broken hearts.’

Denial in Disguise

There’s a lesson in leadership to be sure.  Viewing the world through rose-colored glasses isn’t accurate.  Thus truth alludes and hearts break. For life’s biggest challenges, a cool, almost cynically wise sense of reality is far more important.

Optimism is denial in disguise 

The other problem with optimism is denial is disguise. This is particularly true because people tend to revert to denial as a coping mechanism anyway. We notoriously overestimate our prospects for career success, business earnings, marital bliss, staying healthy and life span.

Don’t Cheer Me Up

When I lost my hearing, well-meaning friends were quick to remind, “Look at the bright side; at least you are not blind!” Think that cheered me up? Not quite.

But the problem wasn’t simple-Simon platitudes. The real issue was the false assumption that I needed to be cheered. I did not. Instead, I needed foremost to truly understand—and accept—the reality of my situation.

Consider your worst burden. Write about your suffers in excruciating detail.  Then study the list and grieve with passion. 

Taking a thorough inventory of the cold hard facts was the grueling task at hand—hardly an optimistic exercise.  But that’s exactly what I recommend during my Perseverance Workshops. Consider your worst burden and itemize every horrific aspect of it. Write about your suffers in excruciating detail.  Then study the list and grieve with passion.

Mutual Inspiration

Not very inspirational, you say?

Other people with profound hearing loss understand. People stricken with a life changing disability at the prime of their life—they can relate.  People who experience the hidden tortures—who have a “presenting problem” (like hearing loss) that others may notice; but a silent ache (like isolation) that no one else sees—those quiet sufferers; they  get it.

Our common pain makes us uniquely qualified to heal one another. 

They are the dear and precious ones who share the very same painful secrets as me.   Staunch acceptance of our reality brings us together.  Our common pain makes us uniquely qualified to heal one another.

They, of all the world, distinctively  inspire me and I can inspire them back. 

Open the Gates

There is a story about a hopeless alcoholic who woke up from a blackout stupor terrified that, while passed out in a chair, he was inexplicably holding a loaded gun in his own mouth. He broke down crying, considering perhaps that he should take his own life after all.

A fellow alcoholic in recovery happened on the scene.  He leaned over and whispered in the crying man’s ear:  “I have the secret to sobriety,” he said. “God does not open the gates of heaven to let you in; God opens the gates of hell to let you out.”

It feels more like grace. God does not open the gates of heaven to let you in; God opens the gates of hell to let you out.

There is amazing gratitude in surviving hell.  It feels more like grace than positive thinking.  And surely it’s a touch of heaven to inspire others on the path to survive it with you.

Optimism has very little to do with it.

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