Choose Optimism


“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Last week, the human race lost one of its greatest leaders of all time. Almost every country around the world flew their flags at half-mast in remembrance of Nelson Mandela.

To see the global impact of one single person should be inspiring to us all. In his lifelong journey for peace, freedom, and equality, Nelson Mandela captured the essence of the human spirit and, illustrates to all of us, why, as a species, our predilection for optimism is so critical to our success.

He told us, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” We are all grateful for the inspiration he has brought to us as humans, showing us firsthand how one person with a positive attitude can create lasting change for an entire planet. 

Our society has seen incredible advances over the past few generations. Technology has changed almost everything about how we work, communicate, travel, eat, and spend our leisure time. Despite all these incredible developments, we have not yet figured out how to slow the passing of time. We sit by helplessly as children grow up, economies rise and fall, our bodies age. We witness history happening before our eyes – unable to flick the remote or fire up a digital preview. Some things are still out of our grasp.

We often mark our biggest milestones with a pause to reflect on the past and dream of the future. Upon Mr. Mandela’s passing, we learn more about the man and become even more inspired to carry on his work. It’s with a sense of closing that we approach the end of 2013. The end of the year is filled with remembrance, marked also with celebration and the beginning of a new year. We burst with new goals, aspirations and purpose – reinvigorated by a clean slate and inspired by rebirth. We espouse our big dreams and desires for the coming year in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. December is an easy time to be an optimist.  Nelson Mandela’s life inspires us to remember the value of optimism - in our leaders and in our lives.

Henri Matisse captured this spirit in his spectacular metaphor, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”  As we enjoy the holiday season, the arrival of the winter solstice, and the beginning of a new year, it’s easy for us to project ourselves forward and imagine all the great things we’d like to achieve in the year ahead. We don’t have to just dream of the year to come, set goals for ourselves, and vow to be better people – there are apps for that now!

Time Magazine offers a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting that optimism may be hardwired in the human brain through our evolution. Research findings that optimists live longer and are healthier, plus the fact that most humans display optimistic biases — and emerging data that optimism is linked to specific genes — all strongly support this hypothesis.

University of Pennsylvania researchers Margaret Greenberg and Dana Arakawa studied the relationship of the level of optimism of managers and employee engagement and productivity. “Though a manager's optimism didn't directly influence the engagement level of his or her employees, a manager's sense of optimism correlated significantly with his or her own level of engagement. In other words, the more optimistic the manager, the more engaged he or she is on the job.”[i]  

Daniel Wegner was a professor at Harvard University and was instrumental in the development of the Ironic Process Theory. Ironic processing is the psychological process whereby an individual's deliberate attempts to suppress or avoid certain thoughts (thought suppression) render those thoughts more persistent. This has been exemplified by George Lakoff’s  “Don’t think of a pink elephant” research - and a personal favorite – “I lost the game

So if science has proven that we are unable to control ourselves to not think about a pink elephant – then the opposite should be true as well, right?  And it seems to be. According to Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and author of “Learned Optimism”, anyone can learn to be optimistic.

“If you think about disaster, you will get it. Brood about death and you hasten your demise. Think positively and masterfully, with confidence and faith, and life becomes more secure, more fraught with action, richer in achievement and experience.” – Swami Vivekananda

Seligman proposes a simple way of learning to be an optimistic by altering responses to adverse events. ABCDE was a simple acronym to help with learning to be an optimist. A = adverse event, B=belief you usually have about event, C=consequences of that belief, D=dispute the belief using facts and logic, E=energy that arises from dispute. Over time, Seligman espouses that these exercises will teach people to be more optimistic. Others seem to agree that learning is an option.

 “Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn't have it in the beginning.” – Gandhi

The value of optimism in our leaders, along with integrity and credibility is paramount to success. It’s critical for leaders to be optimistic, but balanced with reality so as not to seem delusional.  Voltaire once commented that “optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” Oliver Pell noted that “Optimism is a psychological disorder exhibited by those out of touch with reality.”  It’s important for successful leaders – really everyone for that matter – to balance optimism with reality. Optimism grounded in reality is important. For leaders, being transparent is critical to credibility. Credible leaders who are optimists can be successful. Blind optimism in the face of daunting odds can jeopardize credibility. Being an optimist while acknowledging hard truths is the best way to pave a path to success.

“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill

It’s always a good time to plan for the future, but December gives us a natural milestone. The Internet is an amazing resource, with details on How to Live Happily Ever After or How to Find the Pot of Gold at the End of the Rainbow – and it’s also a great place to find resources to help you dream and become an optimist.

George Weigel said, “Optimism and pessimism are mere matters of optics, of how you look at things, and that can change from day to day, or with a new prescription for your glasses -- or with a new set of ideological filters.”

Research shows that optimists are healthier, happier, live longer, are better leaders, and make the world a better place. Why wouldn’t you choose to be optimistic?

The world needs optimists. Organizations need leaders. Nelson Mandela brought us inspiration in a time of change. We are still in the midst of tremendous change – from global demographics through technology into organizational dynamics. The new year offers an opportunity – hope for change. We’ve seen major events in 2013 – from the meteor in Russia to Typhooon Haiyan –to the Minamata treaty. Opportunities for all of us to come together and make a difference in the lives of others.  As we enter 2014, each and every one of us has a chance to step up and do something great – and the wonderful thing about optimism is that as we approach January 1, we all can live it out in our imagination – and resolve to live a better, more impactful, life in 2014.

Harry Gray said, “No one ever achieved greatness by playing it safe.” Don’t just be optimistic, cement your resolutions as a foundation for greatness. In the early 1900’s, an inspirational children’s story was written about “The Little Engine That Could” in which a long train must be pulled over a high mountain. Larger engines refuse the call, but a small engine – unqualified, but with a strong will - kindly agrees. It takes a series of “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can” mantras to get the train cars up the steep grade.

December is a natural time to look back and be grateful and optimistic about the year ahead – the joy coming from achievement and goodness, and thankfulness for the learning and wisdom we gain from the bad things - and to look ahead to the new year, setting bold goals with the I-think-I-can mantra in the back of our minds.

We must carry forward the inspirational work of Nelson Mandela. As we plan for 2014, be optimistic and raise your own bar to achieve something special in honor of a great human being.

 “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great, you can be that generation” - Mandela


  1. Fundamentally, be an optimist
  2. Self-confidence matters
  3. Optimism works better with transparency and integrity
  4. Watch Mandela’s release from prison speech
  5. Think on a longer-term horizon
  6. Watch Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture
  7. Look at the scientific benefits and statistics of optimism
  8. Make a New Year’s resolution to be more optimistic
  9. Humans make a choice between stimulus and response – make the optimistic choice
  10. Research Martin Seligman’s ABCDE method
  11. Always view the glass as half full, at least there’s a little left to drink if all goes wrong
  12. Let Nelson Mandela inspire you to also be one of the greatest human beings ever



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