What does it mean to be optimistic?
My definition is the choice to focus on the positive aspects of a situation, both in-the-moment and the potential outcomes, without ignoring problematic areas. The latter can lead to a phenomenon sometimes described as toxic positivity: an unrelenting stance of positive thinking that can cover up real issues underneath and prevent more serious diagnoses and interventions. Particularly during this prolonged period of COVID lockdowns and turmoil, staying unrealistically positive threatens to minimize and trivialize the trauma that folks have faced for the past 18 months.
I’ve been working through my podcast list recently. On a recent episode of In the Bubble—a podcast about COVID-19 and everything surrounding the virus—I was reminded of this dual-sided nature of optimism when the host reflected a little on the nature of their optimism and how that can come off as insincere. From their listener’s standpoint, some felt like the upbeat messaging made light of real anxiousness1, even as the intent was really to provide a level of transparency with medical and scientific experts and avoid blind cheerleading or simplistic doom-and-gloom. It certainly feels like people have gotten better at smelling out disingenuous spin, or maybe it’s just that we’re all so very tired of this pandemic.
Personally, I’m fairly new to this optimism thing. In the past, I’ve found it much easier to either be wholly indifferent, or to lean towards pessimism by default. With the former, nonchalance has always felt like a safe stance to take; since there’s no positive commitment to the outcome, there’s little chance of failure and getting that irksome feeling of being let down. With the latter, I’m embarrassed to admit that my attitude honed closely to lazy cynicism, recognizing that it’s often easy to find and criticize flaws in any system or arrangement. For instance, sports fans frown on bandwagoning fans who only show up when the team wins, but disappear when they’re no longer as competitive; it’s more fun to either complain about the team’s management or players or just ignore the sport altogether2.
The feedback I received at the time was that, well, it was much less cool than I thought in my head to be crapping on everything. Persistent negativity was hardly constructive, and it was a particularly bad stance to take when I transitioned into management because my attitude then rubbed off on the rest of the team. It was a tough lesson to learn, an early warning of the effects of managerial amplification that becomes even more pronounced up the org chart.
To those ends, I was happily surprised when someone told me recently that they saw me as an optimistic force to the team, and that I often continue to push for positive change even when it’d frankly be a long shot. In direct contrast to noncommittal indifference, I actually find now that it’s a less risky strategy to just look for the upside; at worst, I may come off a tad annoying and naive, but on the rare occasions when optimism translates into action—
I look like a freaking genius.