Learn to be Optimistic

January 18, 2013

220px-WhitewaterKayaking-BLMHow you think affects how you feel, and how you feel has everything to do with most everything in your life: happiness, work, and love. You can train yourself to be happy. This is the power of positive psychology and learned optimism.

Much of chapter four of my book Your Job Survival Guide: A Manual for Thriving in Change discusses learned optimism and its far less functional twin, learned helplessness. Learned optimism amounts to conscious, reality-based management of self in a world full of bumps and bruises. Change frequently comes uninvited and can easily prove as uncomfortable as a plunge into an icy river. This is how it is. This reality can easily engender paralysis, learned helplessness, that famous ‘deer in the headlights’ look and understandably so. Understandably so but not usefully so. One needs to find a way to change and not to feel helpless. We need to cultivate optimism.

This goes double or treble for leaders. The developing science of the brain supports this simple point. This science shows the power of our limbic system to pick up emotional and social cues and the importance of positive experience in activating the learning center of the brain. Optimistic leaders spread optimism to those around them – greater productivity, greater creativity, and innovation. Leaders set the tone for acceptance of change, an openness to risk taking, driving greater levels of performance.

The flip side of learned optimism is learned helplessness. Turbulent, permanent whitewater environments can easily lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed, a feeling of helplessness. This feeling, in and of itself, may cause paddlers to stop paddling, perhaps at the most inopportune time for them and for their teammates. You can feel that what you do doesn’t matter. You can become passive and pessimistic before the great roiling river. You can give up and drown. And leaders? Leaders who exhibit helplessness crush innovation and rob organizations of the risk taking, limit stretching spirit necessary for thriving in permanent whitewater.

Being optimistic, for most of us, turns in no small part on a decision that we make about managing and leading ourselves, starting now. We are not talking Polly Anna here, but rather a worldview that accepts our permanent white water state, keeps it ‘out there’, and focuses on what one can control and influence given that world. The control and influence begins with one’s own state of mind. So, look at chapter 4 of Your Job Survival Guide and use it as a starting point to experiment with optimism. Note how your experiment affects both you and those around you, especially those you would lead. Your notes should further light up your brain’s learning center, increase your optimism and encourage you to continue, to paddle on. (For more on learned optimism, see Chapter 4 in Your Job Survival Guide.)