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Getting Back To Tough-Minded Optimism

Here’s another post in my semi-official series titled, I screw up so you don’t have to…

There are times when I struggle to balance my idealism and realism. Over the past few years, I’ve edged more toward the side of realism, focusing on foreseeing any problems or complications with an idea. Hell, I’ve even made a cardinal sin by poking holes in ideas and talking about all the reasons why they won’t work.

I don’t think it used to be this way. It’s likely the soft erosion of optimism that occurs when realism just feels so much more comfortable. And safe. But it’s not too late to bring back tough-minded optimism. For instance, Bob Sutton provides just the encouraging kick in the pants that I need with his post called Realists vs. Idealists: Thoughts about Creativity and Innovation.

He writes:

…One of the most powerful and persistent findings in the behavioral sciences is the self-fulfilling prophecy: Simply believing that something will happen, and convincing others that it will be so, increases the odds that it will, indeed, come true. Realists often do a fantastic job of convincing others why good ideas will fail; while idealists push on and inspire others to join them against the odds. Now, I am not against realists. We need real evidence and we need to know the risks of what we are doing, but the irony is that the odds of failure may be objectively lower for idealists then realists (and pessimists); so the prophecies of each group may be fulfilled. Moreover, when the odds are against you or your idea, oddly enough, one of the few methods that have been shown to increase the odds of success is convince yourself and others that – if everyone just persists – the odds of success are high. This paradox has always intrigued me and I write about it a lot in Weird Ideas That Work. And does have a very practical, and evidence-based, implication: All other things being equal, you should bet on optimists rather pessimists.

Just what I needed to read.

But the bonus of the article is the cartoon that Bob procured from the New Yorker which shows the real score between realists and idealists. If it seems like the realists are winning every inning, just remember that they’re likely not winning the game. Go check out Bob’s post for the cartoon to see what I mean.