When Things Get Tough, It’s the Realists Who Survive

There’s no shortage of advice from motivational speakers and self-help authors preaching that success is the byproduct of a positive attitude. The Power of Suggestion, as popularized by The Secret, posits that positivity attracts success. No matter whether in an organization, freelance, or as an entrepreneur, being overly (and unrealistically) optimistic can grossly backfire and have devastating consequences. Not only can it stifle you and your team, but it can undermine your decisions and affect your morale, outlook, and ultimately your bottom-line. So how can you be an optimist without being foolish?

Jim Collins, author of the famous book Good to Greatsuggests making one small change to your thinking. Collins recounts his interview with General Stockdale who was a prisoner for eight years during the Vietnam War, about his experiences in captivity. After surviving torture and losing many friends in jail, General Stockdale miraculously made it out alive. The General shared with Collins how he managed to survive the torture, starvation, and horrors of captivity, when all hope was seemingly lost.

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say,‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

Of course, optimism, and the confidence it creates are essential for creating and sustaining the motivation that you need to reach your goals. In fact, research indicates that positive thinkers tend to do better in school, work and life. A psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania proved that optimists are more successful than equally talented pessimists in business, education, sports and politics. But the key here is to balance optimism with pessimism.

There must be be a balance between objectives and projections; bold objectives can motivate your team and improve your chances of success, but calculated projections should be used to decide whether or not to make a commitment in the first place.

As you carefully balance optimism with realism, be careful not to slip into pessimistic thinking. When you assume the worst case scenario and weigh difficulty, disappoint, and failure in greater proportion than any positive outcomes, you can lower morale, undermine promising new ideas, and hamper progress. Author Bernard Marr compiled a list of ten phrases that can act as your barometer for when you start to slip into pessimistic thinking:

  1. That won’t work.
  2. I can’t do it.
  3. Impossible
  4. That’s not fair.
  5. It’s not my fault.
  6. I might be able to…
  7. That’s not my job.
  8. Need
  9. I think…
  10. I’ll try.

If you catch yourself considering the consequences of a situation, and bordering on pessimism, reframe the problem so that it’s not so severe. Success occurs when you push through the odds without losing faith in the eventual (positive) outcome.

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This post was originally published on 99U.