A Down Side of Optimism

“An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight… The truly wise person is color- blind.” Albert Schweitzer

I learned a very difficult life lesson this month. Me, the eternal optimist and consummate positive thinker was blinded by my own medicine. It’s a powerful personal story and it dawned on me in the midst of recounting it to my entrepreneur group that its lesson is incredibly applicable to business.

Here goes. My husband and I just built a house. At the final accounting meeting with our builder, it came to light that we were a significant amount over budget. More than is typically expected. While I won’t go into detail about how we came to learn this so late in the game (that is a separate issue that we also had to deal with) you can imagine the impact this costly news had upon us. After our initial panicked reaction, and process with our builder something suddenly became very clear to me. The house actually cost us exactly what a house of this size and specification should cost. How could this have happened I wondered?

When I originally got estimates from local builders, they told us what the house we wanted to build would cost. The number was larger than we wanted to hear. Then, along came our builder who in his exuberance about our project and desire to meet our budget optimistically told us he could build our house in the range that worked for us. Of course, we were delighted and made plans to break ground.

This is where the problem began. His unrealistic optimism meeting my unrealistic (and naïve) optimism became the perfect recipe for broken expectations, and ultimately a larger than anticipated mortgage.

It’s a delicate distinction to make. Optimism versus reality. I still believe with all my being that positive thinking and optimism fosters a healthy outlook on life and encourages positive results, but, when can too much optimism blind you to reality?

Jim Collins, in his book, “Good to Great,” talks about this very challenge he calls “The Stockdale Principle” which states, you have to be realistic about your current situation and yet, stay optimistic about the future. He was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and noted that his fellow prisoners who were the eternal optimists and knew they’d be rescued any day all died. Conversely, the prisoners who looked at the painful day-to-day reality they were in, yet somehow knew it would all be ok survived.

So, how does the distinction of optimism versus reality apply to your business? Where might you be neglecting reality in favor of being optimistic and missing an important opportunity to take action. An example that comes to mind is from a business owner I was recently coaching. He was wondering about an employee that didn’t seem like a good fit for his company. Even though his other employees were complaining, he was hopeful something would work out. He didn’t want to let the employee go, and was resisting doing what he knew he should do. He was confused about reality and calling it optimism. When he saw the difference he was able to be decisive.

Another area where it’s easy to be blinded by optimism is in the financial arena. Not having adequate financial reports, or budgets in place to drive your decision making and relying on your optimism instead of reality can lead to a cash crisis and ultimate business demise.

Take a look at your relationship to optimism. Ask yourself if you use optimism as a skim coat for denial, perhaps bordering on delusion. If so, find the perfect balance between staying positive yet not being afraid to look squarely at reality. In my experience I know that reality is always deal-able, it clearly may not be my preference in the moment, but life always turns out ok in the end -somehow.

When it’s all said and done, I can afford the larger mortgage, and I have a beautiful house that’s worth more than I paid to build it. But, I can’t help but wonder how much stress and aggravation I might have avoided if I had seen that my optimism was really denial in disguise and accepted reality from the beginning.

It’s YOUR life…imagine the possibilities!

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