What Type of –Ist Are You?

You know the classic question – is the glass half full, or half empty?  Your answer determines your outlook on life.  See the glass as half full, and you’re an optimist.  See the glass as half empty, and you’re a pessimist.  Who wouldn’t want to be the optimist in this scenario?   The pessimist is seen as the angry, bitter, sad, negative-Nancy or Debbie-downer.

“I’m not a pessimist,” many people object.  “I’m a realist!”  To someone who identifies as an optimist, this statement is absolutely as pessimistic as a statement can get.  Not only is someone insisting the glass is half-empty, they are contending that the emptiness is reality.  Talk about a cloud of negativity!

But is being an optimist really all it’s cracked up to be?

Not necessarily.  When it comes to health, optimists can live longer than pessimists, yet optimists are also likely to ignore critical health symptoms, such as symptoms for stroke or heart disease, until it’s too late.

Optimists can also get themselves into serious trouble in the workplace.  A manager who wants everything to appear hunky-dory can sweep things under the rug for the sake of appearances, telling themselves and their team that everything is going to be okay.  They show fancy pie charts and line graphs and then blindly ignore the facts that point to destruction.  I have close to 15 years of advertising and marketing experience, and believe me, I’ve made more than my share of graphs and presentations that spin negative news in a positive way.  There’s a fine line between truth and reality in those situations.  It’s great if things go the way the manager or company wants them to, but what if things take a turn for the worse?  If things don’t improve, the sunny optimists are painted into a corner they can’t get themselves or the company out of.  How much of the financial collapse of 2008 was due to half-truths, lies and cover-ups?  Were any of the lies attributed to businesspeople with optimistic attitudes that weren’t ready to face reality?  To my knowledge, there haven’t been any studies done on that situation specifically, but it stands to reason that overly-optimistic attitudes may have been a factor.

In my experience, it’s not always great to be seen as an optimist in everyday life, either.  Throughout my life, I’ve usually identified as an optimist.  That’s all fine and dandy when I’m cheering for my favorite sports team in the last 10 seconds of a football game.  It’s not so great when I’m talking to a friend that’s dealing with depression, comforting a loved one with a serious medical diagnosis, or considering the atrocious horrors in Syria.

When I’m chipper and upbeat in a situation that calls for a more somber attitude, I can appear silly, frivolous and unfeeling.   I can seem insensitive and even foolish for trying to see the bright side of a situation which all facts illustrate is challenging and serious.  To use a popular metaphor, I can look like the ostrich burying my head in the sand when danger approaches instead of facing challenges that come my way.

I think I’ve found a better way.  I was introduced to the concept of “optimalism” in Tal Ben-Shahar’s book, “The Pursuit of Perfection.”  In the book, an optimalist is compared to a perfectionist, not the optimist as I outlined above, but the concept is the same.  Simply put, an optimalist is one who aspires to make the most out of every situation given the reality of the situation.  Rather than rejecting truth, an optimalist accepts facts and capitalizes on them.

An optimalist experiences failure just like anyone else does, but the experiences aren’t debilitating. Optimalists build resilience in the face of rejection and accept set-backs as temporary bumps in the road and learning experiences.  On the contrary, perfectionists who refuse to accept failures of any kind can be immobilized by any type of set-back, temporary or not, and optimists can appear blind to any negative feedback and never really learn from mistakes.

An optimalist can look at reality, recognize limitations, work hard and improve.  They aren’t bogged down by the pressures of perfection, but they don’t ignore critical facts.  An optimalist can approach a situation and solve it to the best of their ability, and then say, “Okay.  Good enough!  What’s next?”

I think some of us are wired to think a little more positively, and some of us are built to be more discerning and thoughtful.  If that makes some of us optimists and others pessimists, so be it.  I don’t choose to be limited by such labels, though.  Each of us is capable of applying optimalist principles to our lives.  We could all be a lot happier because of it.

“The happiest people don’t have the best of everything.

They make the best of everything.”

– Unknown



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