“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” – Vaclav Havel, writer and philosopher
I believe in optimism, and I believe that hope usually does more harm than good. Hope requires very little action. On the other hand, optimism is an action-based state of mind.
Optimism is not a passive state. To become a real and practical force in our lives, optimism requires practice. When we hope, we expect someone else will take care of the problem; when we practice optimism, we look at the actions we are going to initiate to be successful. We believe we will be successful.
I remember being swept away by the many articles and television programs commemorating the assassination of John F. Kennedy this past November. Virtually everyone over the age of 55 remembers where they were and what they were doing. As they shared their memories, the tears poured out – half a century later.
John F. Kennedy was the last president who inspired the country to take action, to contribute rather than take, to give to good ventures in the world, and to be responsible. Young people became involved politically. Many joined the Peace Corps. Physical fitness became expected in schools. Many people recognized that positive change can only come from harnessing right action to vision.
For baby boomers, the loss of Kennedy was like a giant lever moving our culture from unbridled optimism to abject cynicism. All of the unanswerable questions of his passing only heightened the fixation on the fact that a punk brought down the most charismatic leader we might have ever had. Many traded in their optimism for credit cards. The next seven years gave our country all the reasons it needed to let cynicism grow into outright contempt.
Hope took the place of optimism.
I believe that all of us passed the wound of that event on to others, especially in the children we raised. I was six years old when it happened, and somehow I knew that I would have to live with the impact of that event for the rest of my life.
Remembering the schism that occurred in our country, I have developed a healthy respect for the contempt and cynicism that infiltrates our culture. Sadly, contempt, cynicism, aimlessness, and resignation are the strongest shields we can use to protect ourselves from taking risks and action. Practicing optimism is the single most effective way of moving past these barriers.
In the years since Kennedy’s assassination, we witnessed Watergate, 9/11, and the Great Recession. All along, the value of optimism has only grown. Now, we have to turn our backs on the poison of our political discourse and the idea that our country has gone to hell in a hand basket.
A few years ago, I was ushered into a studio executive’s office. She was spectacularly beautiful and opened our conversation with, “Welcome! You are my solution!”
I laughed so hard. “Why am I your solution? You don’t know me!”
“Have you watched The Secret?” she asked.
“The solution to all of our problems, passed down through thousands of years, available for only $29.95?” I asked back.
“That’s the one! I watched it this weekend and practiced the exercises. I actually wrote that someone would walk in my door with the answers to my problems,” she replied.
We did create miracles together. Today she leads film production in London for one of the entertainment industry’s great icons. But consider this: Her enthusiasm and clarity fueled every breakthrough. She did the work. She put herself out there.
Optimism is a choice. It is a way of life. Investing in that state of mind takes only a few minutes a day. All of us have the capacity to choose our outlook.
Here are a few suggestions on how to build and develop optimism as a foundation for your life:
- Every day, define the actions that will help you realize your vision.
- Commit to a mission, vision, and purpose that are greater than your circumstances.
- Shift your energy from living with the problem to focusing on the solution.
- Hang out with people who are succeeding rather than failing.
- Rather than watching the news, let others tell you the important events of the day.
David Harder is the founder of Inspired Work.