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Optimism, Hope, Perseverance and Success

30Mar 2008

This week I have been reflecting on the role of optimism and hope in life and business.

(These thoughts aren’t real “deep” or well-developed, but rather some initial musings.)

In the past 10+ years there has been a significant movement within psychology that focuses on the positive side of life (aptly named, positive psychology; see the work by Martin Seligman and others.) This was partly in reaction to psychology and psychiatry’s historical focus on problems — mental illness, psychiatric disorders, dysfunctional relationships, etc. But it was from the realization that a core aspect of many successful people’s lives was their positive view of life. Individuals who achieved higher levels of success in their chosen area often seemed to have a cheerful demeanor, an attitude of “looking forward” to the future (rather than a dour, pessimism) and a “let’s find the silver lining in this dark cloud” mentality and seemed to help them overcome challenges and barriers encountered. See the classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl or the movie Life is Beautiful directed by Roberto Benigni, for examples.

Optimism seems rooted in hope. Hope that circumstances will get better. Hope that your toil and sweat will pay off in the long run. Hope that something good will happen today (or tomorrow). Interestingly, hope often must exist in the face of circumstances which do not support it — bad news, pain, being wronged by others, receiving unfair treatment, things breaking, others not keeping their word, seemingly random negative events that keep happening to you.

What is the basis for hope? Some research suggests that some people seem naturally predisposed to having a more optimistic and hopeful view of life (unfortunately, we can’t choose our genetic pool.) Other research and reports from those who have lived through difficult circumstances indicate that keeping focused on the moment enables people to survive and keep going — they focus on today and what they need to do to make it to tomorrow. Within this present-orientation, having loved ones you care about, and a belief that your life is part of a larger purpose in the universe also seem to be related to maintaining an optimistic view while experiencing difficult circumstances.

How does this relate to business life? I think that optimism and hope are core components of perseverance, which we have already identified as being a key predictor of success in one’s profession. Why persevere if there is no hope of things turning out well? (I do think some people persevere just because they are tough-minded, and refuse to give up.)

Interestingly, I think “rest” is an interrelated issue to perseverance, as well. We are more tempted to give up when we are tired (emotionally and physically). Conversely, after a restful weekend, holiday or vacation, we are ready to tackle the problem again. Additionally, social support encourages us to persevere as well — working in teams together, having someone who gives you verbal encouragement to keep going, etc.

And the goal is to succeed — to reach the desired end in mind, whether that is a specific achievement (an “A” in a difficult college course, reaching your sales goal for the quarter, losing two pounds this week, etc.) or having come through a process successfully (making it through the week without losing your temper, treating your customers with integrity, to have played the game to your fullest ability and effort even if you don’t ‘win’).

Obviously, a hidden question becomes: What are my goals and are they really worth pursuing? Many “successful” individuals (in terms of wealth, influence, fame) reach their goals and thus, are “successful”, but realize upon reaching their goals that the goal was hollow, ephemeral, and didn’t bring them the fulfillment they expected.

More questions and issues than answers, but I am left with the questions:

*How can I increase my level of optimism and hope?

*What can I do to keep persevering in spite of obstacles and challenges (and weariness) encountered?

*Are the goals I am pursuing really the goals I want to achieve? (And am I missing the more important goals along the way?)

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