People often ask me whether I am an optimist or a pessimist. I have real trouble with that question because it implies that I should be one or the other. As with many things in my life, I challenge the conventional wisdom by responding that I am both. In truth, I'm a long run optimist and a short run pessimist. I have a strong sense that growing opportunity is ahead but from day to day I can tell you all the things that are likely to go wrong as I deal with the simplest of tasks like participating in a meeting or even getting from my home to the office. While certainly difficult in the near-term, experience leads me to believe that this can be a really powerful combination to achieve longer-term impact.
I’ve been this way since I was a young child when I experienced very challenging day to day situations but never lost my optimism that somehow things would turn out OK. It served me very well. I not only survived, but thrived, inspired by the belief that somehow things would turn out for the better and prepared to address the many challenges as they emerged so that I could experience that longer term opportunity.
The pitfalls of optimism and pessimism
Here’s the thing. I believe that optimism and pessimism in isolation lead to complacency and passivity. If I’m purely an optimist, I have deep faith that things will work out for the best regardless of what I do. So, why worry? Things will be great, so no need to stress out over the little things. Optimism tends to breed complacency. Optimists from my experience tend to focus on the long-term view, but are not highly motivated to act in the short-term.
On the other hand, if I’m purely a pessimist, what’s the use? No matter what I do, things are going to be awful. I can try as hard as I can, but it’s very unlikely to change the outcome. Pessimism tends to be overwhelming and to breed passivity – why make any effort if the outcome is going to be a bad one? Pessimists from my experience tend to shrink their time horizons, but also are not highly motivated to act in the short-term.
The power of integrating optimism and pessimism
The combination of long run optimism and short run pessimism is different. I’m deeply motivated by the sense that good things will happen, while at the same time seeing all the near-term challenges that will make it difficult to achieve that longer-term opportunity. I can’t be complacent because there’s a lot standing between me and a great opportunity. On the other hand, the fact that that longer-term opportunity is achievable, pulls me out of passivity and motivates me to take on those near-term challenges because I have a strong sense of the opportunity ahead.
This is a particularly important capability as we navigate through the Big Shift that is transforming our global business landscape. The exponential world emerging from the Big Shift paradoxically brings together mounting performance pressure and unimaginable opportunities. Depending on which aspect of the Big Shift that we focus on, we can either reinforce our optimism or pessimism, creating either complacency or passivity – both extremely dangerous reactions in a world of accelerating change. Yet the real meaning of the Big Shift is that we must find ways to deal with mounting performance pressure so that we can harness the extraordinary opportunities emerging on a global scale. Both the pure optimist and pure pessimist are likely to fall short.
I’ve written a lot about the passion of the explorer and why it’s such a powerful attribute in the Big Shift. From my experience, people who have the passion of the explorer tend to be driven by this combination of long run optimism and short run pessimism. They’re keenly aware that there are a lot of near-term challenges that stand between them and greater impact in the domain they have chosen. But, rather than stressing them out, these near-term challenges excite them because they know that, as they address and overcome these challenges, they will learn faster and their impact in the domain will continue to expand.
So, if the combination of long run optimism and short run pessimism is so useful, is there anything we can do to cultivate it or are we simply born with a certain orientation that stays with us throughout our lives? Like most things in life, I believe change is possible but challenging.
The shift from optimism to pessimism
Let’s look at what’s going on around us. We have a global news media that is increasingly focused on every conceivable bad thing happening to us (when is the last time that you read or saw a good news story in our media?). We have an increasingly dysfunctional political system where both sides of the aisle are focused on the enemies that are attacking us (the “enemies” of course differ depending on which side of the aisle you are on) and about to deprive us of our most prized possessions, including life itself. What’s been the effect of all of this? Well, I haven’t seen any studies on this but my impression from observing my network is that we are seeing a slow but steady shift of long run optimists into short run pessimists.
So, if we can move from being long run optimists into becoming short run pessimists, why couldn’t we make a similar shift to integrate the two views of the world? What would it take to make that transition?
The role of opportunity based narratives
One powerful tool to make this happen is something that I call “opportunity based narratives.” I hasten to add that I have a very unique definition of narrative, a term that most people use interchangeably with stories. For those of you who have not been following my writing on this topic, here’s the capsule summary:
Stories, the way I define them, have two attributes. First, they are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end. Second, stories are about the story-teller or about other people, they are not about you.
In contrast, opportunity based narratives, the way I define them, have two very different attributes. First, they are open-ended – there’s some significant opportunity out in the future that is yet to be attained, and it’s not at all clear that it will be attained. Second, the resolution of the narrative depends on you – the choices you make and the actions you take will make a material difference in how the narrative resolves itself. Narratives, framed in this way, can be a powerful call to action.
So, how do opportunity based narratives relate to long run optimism and short run pessimism? All effective narratives contain a powerful dramatic tension. There is an extraordinary opportunity that can be achieved if we mobilize to address it. On the other hand, the achievement of this opportunity is not by any means guaranteed. There are a lot of challenges that we will confront as we seek to address this opportunity. It’s up to us whether we will have the creativity and persistence required to confront and overcome these challenges so that we can in fact realize the opportunity.
That’s a powerful mix. It excites us about the opportunity on the horizon but warns us there will be significant challenges along the way and makes it clear that our choices and actions will ultimately determine the outcome – we are not just passively watching an adventure drama. Opportunity based narratives harness The Power of Pull.
To the extent we’re drawn into the narrative, we almost inevitably must become the hybrid of long run optimists and short run pessimists, regardless of whether we start out as optimists or pessimists. We should never under-estimate the significance of the challenges standing in our way, but we must also stay focused on the opportunity and the wonderful things that it will bring if we come together to address the challenges ahead.
The bottom line
As a society, we’re in desperate need of opportunity based narratives. Without them, we’ll be sucked into a vicious cycle of intensifying short-run pessimism that fosters passivity and in turn reduces our ability to address the challenges that we all confront, breeding even more pessimism and passivity. We all need to recover our sense of agency – that we have the ability to act and to make a difference in the world around us. Opportunity based narratives can be a powerful catalyst for making that shift from passivity to agency and, in the process, many more of us may become long run optimists and short run pessimists. It’s not guaranteed, and there will be a lot of challenges along the way, but we all need to take on the task of crafting opportunity based narratives at the level of the individual, at the level of our institutions and at the level of our broader society.