In Defense of Optimism

Focusing on the positive shouldn’t need defending. Who argues that being miserable beats hoping for the best? But as we work mostly with organizations addressing challenges, I’m thinking of the difficulty so many have engendering a culture of optimism. Emily Dickinson wrote ‘I dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose’ and I love the line even if I am not entirely sure what she meant by it. I am certain, though, that organizations grounded by a sense of limits and constraints are impaired and endangered.

The skeptic in the meeting or the fearful leader is not the problem—it’s the absence of whatever spirit or belief helps us deal with objections and anxieties, the lack of optimism, that can become enervating and dangerous.

On a personal level, to be sure, the issue is anything but simple. For one thing, it’s a whole lot easier to have a spring in your step when you’re a member of that happy class unconcerned with a government intent on punishing the vulnerable while enriching the powerful. And our near-obsession with positive thinking can be oppressive and hugely problematic, as Barbara Ehrenreich describes in Bright-sided, her smart, scathing critique.

I once made a presentation to a senior executive, with colleagues who left all feeling frustrated and mystified. The project was exciting and worthwhile but there seemed no getting past his deep cynicism. He wasn’t in a position to stop the project, but we thought he might try. Instead a stunning letter came from him a few weeks later, explaining that he was now being treated for profound depression, and he wanted to apologize to us and others for his behavior. It also felt like he was on a mission to enlighten others –this was the 80’s—who may not realize that even high profile executives in glamorous industries can suffer from disabling depression.

We now understand that individuals are vulnerable in various ways, and have a vocabulary to describe an optimism deficiency, all the way from the colloquial to the clinical, from ‘burned out’ to ‘bi polar’. What we have yet to appreciate is the ways in which organizations can suffer from pessimism and hopelessness and how profoundly disabling that can be. The individuals who sees the half glass half empty are not the problem, but the organization too tired and put-upon to constructively engage with them.

If your mission is to make the world a better place, optimism is not an option: it’s the air you breathe!



by Danny Abelson