If you read my About Me page, you will see that it ends with this: “Finally, I am an optimist. It’s an exciting time to be alive”.
I thought that now would be the perfect time to revisit optimism – not just as a way of viewing external events and avoiding despair, but as a way to impact events. Let’s start with three well-known characters: Bill Gates, Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet.
Last week, the Gates Foundation released their annual letter. Since Warren Buffet gave the bulk of his wealth – $30B or so – to the Gates Foundation in 2006, Bill and Melinda addressed this year’s letter directly to Warren. I recommend you read through the letter in its entirety.
In one part of the letter they touch upon why they remain optimistic about many of the major health challenges facing the world. This optimism runs contrary to rampant pessimism. For instance the statistic below:
Bill puts it well here:
“One of my favorite books is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. It shows how violence has dropped dramatically over time. That’s startling news to people, because they tend to think things are not improving as much as they are. Actually, in significant ways, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been. Global poverty is going down, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.”
Optimism (and pessimism) perpetuates itself. While the political world has become practiced in leveraging fear, that approach doesn’t work as well in the private sector, where leaders create outcomes based upon the shared belief and passion of their teams.
Which leads me to a related point: the importance of active optimism, or “applied hope”. Before I get into the provenance of this phrase, let me drop one last (telling) quote from the Gates letter, this line specifically from Melinda:
“Optimism is a huge asset. We can always use more of it. But optimism isn’t a belief that things will automatically get better; it’s a conviction that we can make things better.”
Melinda’s comment reminded me of a concept that Tom Friedman wrote about in his latest book Thank You For Being Late. From an article Tom wrote in the NY Times:
“The physicist Amory Lovins likes to say when people ask him if he is an optimist or a pessimist: ‘I am neither — because they are just two different forms of fatalism.’ The optimist says things have to get to better, and the pessimist says things have to get worse. ‘I believe in applied hope,’ says Lovins. Things can get better, but you have to make them so.”
I believe in optimism, but the active kind – the kind that causes us to get up when the alarm clock goes off, to confront challenges, to not inflate the importance of disappointments since we know they’re a part of life, and to do it all with good cheer.
Related point: A great way to maintain your optimism is to avoid reading too much of the news. In this time of upheaval, we all run the risk of investing too much of our personal happiness on national political stories over which we have no control. The graphic below is one we’ve all seen and does a good job of showing us the danger. What a politician or bloviating guest on a news program might say or do is certainly not in either of the circles below, apart from some active citizenship measures like voting and so forth.
Don’t get bogged down. Successful people are spending the bulk of their time inside the innermost circle above.
Stay optimistic. Stay on the path of applied hope.