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Pessimist or Optimist: Who Has the Edge?

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I was reading an interesting article by a prestigious think tank this morning that was saying perhaps the 'recession' isn't as black or white as most of us make it out to be and that it most certainly isn't as bad as conventional wisdom and media hype would have us believe. I noticed I felt a little better after reading it, but then I wondered why my mood shifted so easily based on only one article. Tomorrow I could read a darker scenario by another equally reputable authority and feel depressed. Some days I am optimistic and some days I am pessimistic. This came as a bit of a surprise, since one of the tenets of my work and what I teach is that 'pessimism' and 'optimism' are counter-productive concepts--assessments based on attempting to predict an unpredictable future.

Risk is always the same regardless of whether we are pessimistic or optimistic. The glass is never half-full or half-empty; it is only however we see it.

The larger question is which way of seeing the world will afford the greatest possibility and number of choices for the observer. In my reflection this morning, I also realized that I have fallen into the habit of not choosing how I see it, but just automatically reacting to my mood in the moment. If we imagine people in millions of conversations in coffee shops, restaurants, car pools and offices around the globe debating whether the future is bright or bleak, it isn't hard to see that we are becoming spectators and voyeurs arguing which team will win the World Series rather than being engaged in having it turn out the way we want it to be.

If we are pessimistic, we are expressing our view that downward trends will continue to decline, that the inertia of the past will determine the future. From this perspective, most strategies will bet against progress, avoid risk and try to preserve what we have. If we are optimistic, we are expressing our view that either the upward trends will continue OR that something can or will occur to reverse downward trends and achieve breakthroughs.

Optimists have the edge over pessimists simply because they have more possibility in their view of the world. If we are optimistic, we will generally be inclined to take a risk, generate new strategies or tactics, and focus on creating what is missing to achieve a desired future.

Neither view guarantees what the future will be. But whichever view we hold will determine our mood and orientation in the present. I am not suggesting that we should be 'Pollyanna' about our circumstances. I am not suggesting that we should not take many of the circumstances of life very seriously. I am not suggesting that we should be naive or take stupid risks in dangerous situations. I am, however, suggesting that the question is not What will the future be? but rather Who will I be given an uncertain and unpredictable future?

After today, I choose to be an optimist.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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