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Why We All Need to Accept Reality (And 3 Ways to Do It)

04/08/2014 08:41 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2014

It's finally April -- the start of baseball season. On March 31, 26 of the 30 Major League teams started their 2014 campaigns. If you have a favorite team, you're probably full of optimism about the upcoming season. You think, This is the year they're going to win the World Series!

In reality, only one team can win it all, and 29 teams (plus legions of fans) will be disappointed. So are you crazy to think your team will win? No -- you're just human. And humans can be pretty irrational.

Think about the last time you bought a lottery ticket. Did you have a hunch that you had the right numbers? This is nuts -- the probability of winning Powerball is more than 1 in 175 million. You literally have a better chance of becoming president! We humans tend to overestimate the likelihood that good things will happen to us and underestimate the likelihood of bad things. Scientists call this optimism bias, and about 80 percent of us have it.

Not only are we bad at predicting the future, we can't accurately judge our skills and abilities. Most people have statistically impossible opinions about themselves. One classic study reported that 68 percent of professors rated themselves in the top 25 percent for teaching ability. Poppycock! As per Garrison Keillor, we may think our children are above average, but it can't possibly be true for everyone.

This struggle to accept reality seems to be everywhere. Last month, when Russia invaded Crimea, President Obama called it "absurd," pointing out that "no amount of propaganda can make right something the world knows is wrong." Fair enough. But we're not accepting the truth: Russia has seized Crimea, and there's very little the world can do about it. We need to move forward.

Or take Obamacare. Many Americans don't agree with it. But now that more than 6 million people have enrolled, it's almost certainly here to stay. On both sides of the aisle, the best move is probably to accept this and figure out how to make it work. Is that happening? Not from my vantage point.

Let me be clear: I'm not telling you to abandon hope for your baseball team, declare that your children are mediocre, or move to a bunker in the woods. What I am telling you is that as human beings, we have to be careful not to deny reality when it hurts our happiness, health and success. We must accept things are they are, not as we wish them to be.

There's good news: When we embrace reality, amazing things happen. Four months ago, one of my coaching clients set a goal to work out twice a week in the office gym. Every time we'd meet, I'd ask how he was doing. And every time, he'd hang his head and admit defeat. After a while, it almost became comical.

This month, my client said, "I need to accept reality. I am never going to the office gym." So I asked, "Why don't you try working out at home?" (Rocket science, right? This is why they pay me the big bucks). My client grinned, "Challenge accepted." That night, he sent me a triumphant email: "Just got off the elliptical!" And he kept it going -- this small change had changed everything. And if he hadn't realized that the office gym was not for him, he would have been disappointed forever.

Now for a more personal example. You might know that I proselytize work-life balance, despite having struggled to master it most of my life. The science on this is pretty clear: Working too much makes us stupider, more depressed, less healthy and less successful.

And during a recent interview on the subject, I suddenly recognized just how delusional I had become. If you regularly work 70 hours a week, advising people to work fewer hours is, to put it mildly, totally ridiculous.

After that realization, I sprang into action -- I decided that I was going take Fridays off. I'm proud to report that last week was my second "Fun Friday." And even though I'm still working too much the six other days of the week, this is a huge step for me.

So... what truths are you conveniently ignoring or refusing to accept? And how can you jolt yourself back to reality? Here are three tips:

1. Get objective feedback

Other people typically see us more objectively than we see ourselves. I once coached an executive who thought he was an amazing boss. But when I spoke with his team, they reported that he was a total jerk. Was he a bad person? Of course not! No one had ever been honest with him. So find someone who will tell you the truth, keep an open mind, and get an objective perspective. Ask them:

  • "What do you think about this? What am I missing?"
  • "What am I doing here that's helping ? What am I doing that's getting in my way?"

2. Change your perspective

Seeing your situation from a different angle is often a game-changer. An easy way to do this is to imagine that your situation is happening to someone else. For example, if my work-life balance hypocrisy was happening to a friend of mine, I would have said, "For goodness sake! You can't carry on like this! Stop it. Right now." To get this clarity, ask yourself:

  • "How would I react if this were happening to a friend?
  • "What advice would I give this person?"

3. Analyze the situation

As psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman states, "Overconfidence is a powerful source of illusions." In other words, you may be confident, but you might also be wrong. Certainly, listen to your gut. But you also have to rigorously analyze the situation. Ask yourself:

  • "What are the facts and probabilities here?"
  • "What are my biases? How are they influencing me?"

Let's say you want to quit your desk job to start a restaurant. The facts are: You hate your job, you're a great cook, and you need a steady income to pay your mortgage. In your research, you learn that 60 percent of new restaurants fail. Perhaps your bias is that being a great cook guarantees a successful restaurant. This simple analysis has made the right decision pretty clear: You can't even think about starting a restaurant until you have a better financial cushion.

If you follow the three steps above, you'll find yourself beginning to accept reality in no time at all. More importantly, you'll be more confident, more successful and less anxious. If you ask me, that's a huge payoff.