There is a fundamental difference between optimists and pessimists: pessimists are always wrong.
By definition, pessimists tend to believe the worst aspects of things or believe that the worst will happen. While I don’t deny that bad things can and do happen, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in the pessimistic viewpoint. And maybe even in the optimistic viewpoint as well (more on that if you keep scrolling). So what’s the right way for a leader to approach a situation – and help both optimists and pessimists to do what’s necessary to create results?
The Glass Half Full and Half Empty
You’re going to need something more than that.
I Know How This Is Going To End
The pessimistic point of view says, “I know how this is going to end: badly.” The pessimist sees one outcome, and it’s not pretty.
That’s because it’s not true.
Has there ever been a situation in your life where there was only one way that things could work out?
The One Thing You Always Have – No Matter What Your Circumstances
Consider the story of Viktor Frankl. Imprisoned in a Nazi death camp during World War II, Frankl faced unspeakable atrocities. He saw friends and family tortured and killed; he faced what seemed to be a single and certain outcome. Yet, Frankl managed to survive, and the incredible story of how he rose above his circumstances is a message for all of us. Frankl discovered that, even in the midst of incredible cruelty and inhumanity, there was always one option that remained: the option to choose. Circumstances are what they are – but how we respond is always a matter of choice. And, as Frankl discovered, adaptability is a characteristic that all human beings share.
In the timeless classic, Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl explains:
When we can no longer change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves…Everything can be taken from a [hu]man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Pessimists eliminate the option to choose. There’s no choice when there’s only one outcome, or so the thinking goes, on the fast track towards a full stop. Perhaps it’s time to hear from the realist – the realist inside all of us – to test Frankl’s theory. Can we always choose new actions and find new results? Because, if we can, then that means that the pessimist who only sees one outcome is always wrong.
Imagine a team that comes to their coach, and says: “Coach, there’s only one way that we can win!”
“No! that’s not how it works,” the coach would reply. “Your job,” that coach would say, “is to find EVERY way to win.”
The pessimist believes in a false premise: that there’s only one way that this situation is going to go down. And, no matter what the outcome, there’s only one choice – one option – as to how we deal with our circumstances: poorly.
Optimism Vs. Pessimism Vs. ACTION: Who Will Win?
That line of thinking (there’s only one way this turns out) is the ultimate pessimism: an excuse for not finding new ways to win. While Frankl was not necessarily an optimist, he never lost sight of the importance of choice. Choosing to move forward, in spite of circumstances, is always an option – not necessarily an attitude. At its worst, pessimism is simply a lazy excuse to stop trying. Or to try and control the uncertainty that surrounds us all. “I know exactly how this will turn out!” is always a lie. Regardless of your disposition, no one can predict the future.
When it comes to the future, leaders (and effective coaches) help their teams to create it. How you feel about the possibilities is never as important as the action you take to create them.
The optimist who takes an upbeat viewpoint, even in the midst of difficulty, is equally out of touch. As the ship is sinking, the optimist climbs on deck and says, “Look at the beautiful view!” While that optimist is able to see possibilities, are those possibilities useful? Inspiring, perhaps. Maybe even encouraging. Too bad that point of view is completely disconnected from reality.
Understand that pollyanna pep-talks and pessimistic put-downs are never the right answer. Both are disconnected from pragmatic possibility. A realist is someone who sees that possibilities always exist. The effective leader – and the effective coach – both know that the future is uncertain. Telling yourself a story (either a tragedy or a fairy tale with a happy ending) is the opposite of doing what really needs to be done.
Placing What Matters Over Mindset
Setting aside your false predictions about the outcome, what’s the action that will lead to results? Failure is always a possibility. So is success. The real question isn’t “Which one do you believe in?” but rather, “Which one are you working on, right now?”
There’s never just one way to win, or one way that a situation will work out. Choice still exists – how we choose to respond to our circumstances is always in our control. What if you could set your feelings aside, and move forward towards new options? Because whether you think you can or you can’t is never as important as what you do.
Thomas Edison said, “There is a way to do it better – find it.” Maybe it’s time to stop debating what’s in the glass. And take action.