Optimism and Positivity

I’m kind of a Star Wars nerd. Or maybe a wannabe. Not so much of a nerd as to be able to know the details of every scene, every character and every line uttered. I know people like that. I’m the kind of nerd that shows up at the theatre every time a new episode comes out and I thoroughly enjoy the whole experience of a Star Wars film. One scene stands out from one of the last few movies — the young rebel pilot moving in for the final attack. His droid, named BB8, is onboard and begins nervously chirping in the face of impending doom. The pilot responds, “Happy beeps here, buddy!”

There is a lot of goodness in the power of positive thinking. The author and speaker, Jon Gordon, has written a number of books on the how positive leaders can greatly impact the greater good. The Power of Positive Leadership is a really good book on this topic. Having positivity overall is a good thing, both to promote good team energy and good self-talk. A positive outlook is also a springboard to flow state. All good stuff.

But in the face of today’s difficult global circumstances sometimes too much positivity can come off as something less than authentic, as if to dismiss or ignore current circumstances. In other words, there are times when no one wants to hear a bunch of positivity.

One of my favorite authors and optimists, Simon Sinek, cut a short video to talk about Optimism and Positivity. He describes optimism as something different than positivity – and it’s definitely not naive. Optimism is the belief that the future is positive, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we’re heading there, together. He contrasts that with that positivity is saying things are good when they’re not. His definition of optimism sounds a lot like Dr. Gervais definition.

I was scrolling through the comments of the video, just to see the reaction to these definitions, and I came across an analogy from one person. It says positivity is the glass is half-full, negativity is the glass being half-empty, and optimism is that we have water regardless of the level. Interesting.

Agile Best Self Principle #6: The most effective way to be your best self is to be mindful and intentional. 

Following Agile Best Self Principle 6 — being mindful and intentional — being clear about this distinction is helpful for me. In my view, in times like we’re in now, knowing the nuanced difference between the two can help us show up better. Maybe sharing something optimistic may be more helpful right now, another situation positivity can helpful, or even times where both are good.

With intentional language right now, I say that I am optimistic about the future. I look forward to what next year brings and I can’t wait to see many of you again in person.

Copyright © 2020 Michaele Gardner and Brian Hackerson


green trees near rock formation
Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

This series on optimism (and training optimism as a skill) threw me off balance for a while. Then, in true spirit of being a connector and a catalyst (my North Star), I realized that I didn’t suck at optimism as much as I originally thought. I read Brian’s post about why we should train optimism and thought of my days as a rock climber.

With a bit of reframing, I’ve come to understand that I’m ok at optimism. Ok enough to get to the top of Devil’s Tower.

The new frame: Optimism is the same as “picking a line” when rock climbing. You have a general route to follow, but the path is never exactly what you expect it to be. Constant adjustments and constant feedback loops are required. Footholds crumble. Good looking handholds get slimy with sweat and wear. Dust gets in your eyes and mouth. Sweat obscures your vision.

Our Devil’s Tower climbing party included 4 people. One experienced climber who has an amazing level of stamina, strength and grace. Two mostly indoor, technical climbers with great reach – they are both 6″ 4′ and have an unbelievably wide wingspan. Then there was me. I’m 5″ 2′ on a good day, so I have to use different techniques than the guys do.

Climbing and optimism both require a plan and flexibility to create flow. I always think about my rock climbing days when I think of principle 2 because curiosity is essential for flexibility and flow.

Agile Best Self Principle #2: Welcome change with curiosity.

We followed a well-known, well-documented route. Following this path and the guide’s advice worked for me most of the time, but I frequently had to adjust and change footholds and handholds slightly. I’m comfortable standing on the edge of a quarter so it is rarely a challenge for me to find a foothold outdoors. Each adjustment for my reach and climbing style was a fascinating puzzle and a challenge. Whenever I think about approaching change with curiosity, I think of two things.

First: you have a plan- even if you don’t know it. Expectations and habits create most peoples’ daily plans. Most people have a morning plan that is made up of strung together habits. Snooze the alarm. Roll out of bed. Stumble half asleep into the bathroom. Turn on the shower… Eventually many of us got to some variation of “go to work”. For me, this was typically a car commute 3-5 times a week. This habit-based plan was upended on March 15th when schools shut down in Minnesota. My pre-COVID unspoken expectations and habit-based plans about workday mornings were upended immediately and abruptly. Curiosity served me well in those days.

Second: don’t waste your energy on being mad. When a plan falls apart, just skip the friction and figure out how to move forward. Optimism is based on forward movement, not dwelling on the small stuff. If the alarm didn’t go off, just focus on getting to work. Yelling at yourself does not help. If there is no hot water, figure out another way to get cleaned up. Skipping the friction doesn’t mean avoid emotions if something truly impactful happens – just skip the friction if it is wasted energy.

Rock climbing underscores these two points. 1. Pick a route so you have a plan. 2. Don’t let your emotions take over. Shake it off. Climbing is 95% between the ears. I have literally fallen off indoor warm up routes just because I was in a bad mood or something from the day was bugging me. Warm up routes are extremely simple or well known routes that are used to mindlessly warm up the body and get into the flow before attempting challenging routes.

I learned quickly that climbing demanded the many things. The ability to see the line (an essential skill in indoor climbing competitions), the ability to stay curious, a little bit of physical conditioning and trusted climbing partners. By the time the 4 of us made it Devil’s Tower, all of these critical factors were in place.

I never had any doubts that I would make it to the top of this rock with this crew. I had trained myself to be optimistic about this climb.

“Optimism is a trainable skill and it’s the fundamental belief that it’s going to work out.”

Dr. Michael Gervais, Co-Creator of Compete to Create

To extend this story into our modern day reality, we may not know exactly how we are going to get to the top, but if we fundamentally believe our endeavors are going to work out, they usually do. There are many more posts around what “working out” may mean. But that is a topic for another day.

Moving onward and upward, being my best self requires me to rethink and reframe optimism. I’m still figuring out what that means.

This what the top of Devil’s Tower looks like.

Not anywhere near as exciting as it should be. Definitely no alien landing pad. No elevator either. Nowhere near as much fun as climbing up or rappelling back down.

Copyright © 2020 Michaele Gardner and Brian Hackerson

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