THE BLOG
12/03/2009 06:25 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Optimism v. Pessimism: A Treacherous False Choice

The sunny-side-uppers claim that a positive attitude is the secret to success. If only all the Eeyores of the world would start thinking more positively, we could cure disease, create world peace, and line our pockets with riches.

Yet the self-proclaimed realists assert that they're the only ones are willing to face the facts. Leave life to the Pollyannas, and they'll skip us off the edge of a cliff, clutching a copy of The Secret to their chest, passionately chanting, "I believe I can fly, I believe I can fly."

But which side is right?

The answer is both. Or neither, depending on whether you prefer your glass half-empty or half-full.

As any cynic will tell you, ill-informed optimism deludes people into ignoring reality. Yet doom and gloom pessimism sucks people into depression and inaction.  Neither of these mindsets are helpful in bad situations.

The pessimism versus optimism debate is actually a false choice. It's an either/or myth, perpetuated by people who are completely exasperated that the clueless optimists/pessimists on the other side won't see the truth.

However, the real duality we need to embrace is facts AND faith.

As in, the facts may be pretty awful AND having faith that you will ultimately prevail is one of the best ways to insure that you do.

Originally cited by Jim Collins in the classic best-seller Good to Great, the ability to simultaneously face the brutal facts of your current situation AND hold onto the faith that you will prevail is one of the hallmarks of a great leader, and it's the secret to surviving adversity.

The nuanced differences between the facts and faith duality, and pessimism vs. optimism debate, are important.

Facts are just that, facts. However, pessimism is a negative emotion that you attach to facts. Yes, your business might be going broke, or your disease might only have a 2 percent survival rate, or your 401(k) may be worth less than it was when you were 20. But those facts don't have to dictate your response. The ability to look clear-eyed at a situation doesn't mean succumbing to despair.

That's where faith comes in.

While optimism is usually connected to certain outcomes: I'll meet Mr. Right, I'll find a new job next week, I won't have to do any more chemo, faith is less scripted.

It can be faith in God, faith in yourself or just a general feeling that the world tilts toward the greater good. It's a belief that things eventually work out OK, even if the process is messy and you don't know what OK is going to look like.

I explore the facts and faith duality in my new book, The Triangle of Truth, and one of the things I uncovered in my research is that the ability to tolerate uncertainty is what separates the people who can survive difficult situations from those who are flattened by them.

Optimism and pessimism are both based on assumptions that things will play out in certain ways. Yet people who are able to tolerate the ambiguity of uncertain outcomes are able to assimilate facts AND faith at the same time.

Embracing ambiguity is hard for us humans. The optimists and the pessimists may seem sure of their perspectives, but the truth is, nobody knows for sure how life will play out.

We never did and we never will.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a syndicated columnist, author, keynote speaker and business consultant.  Her newest book, The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small hits stores January 5. More info: LisaEarleMcLeod.com