Does Optimism Have a Dark Side?

Aaron Orendorff wrote a provocative post on Mashable last August about the dark side of optimism. It is an article well worth reading. Though it focuses on optimism in business it has applications on all parts of life.

Generally, we think that optimism is a good thing – and it is. Optimistic people are often healthier and live longer. Most successful people are by nature optimists. As Orendorff points out though, just because most successful people are optimists does not mean that most optimists are successful.

Most people, unless they are by nature risk takers, are averse to risk. They fear failure. If they are also by nature optimistic they may minimize the risks out of fear rather than looking realistically at the risk. A failure to be realistic about risk often leads to failure.

Orendorff suggests four steps to guarding against this failure to appreciate risk and allow optimism to lead to failure.

  1. Look into the future and pretend you have failed at whatever you are setting out to accomplish. Then analyze why you failed. What went wrong? This forces us to examine the risks more realistically. The challenge here is not to allow risk aversion to grow too large – if we fear every possible thing that can go wrong we will never start and never finish, and likely never succeed. So this examination of what can go wrong must be balanced with an analysis of what can go right.
  2. Look at the numbers. Analyze whatever you are undertaking in terms of hard cold numbers as often as you can. Look at reliable statistics. Look at how others have failed and why. The lessons from this can be invaluable.
  3. Know your limitations. We all have limitations. There are things we are not good at, there are things we simply cannot do. Failure to realistically examine those limitations can lead to crushing failure.
  4. Avoid surrounding yourself only with optimists. A few pessimists in the mix can be vital to being realistic. If everyone you are working with is an optimist no one may see the risks in a realistic light.

As Orendorff concludes being realistic about optimism does not mean abandoning it. It is about striking a balance between optimism and pessimism. It is about being neither really – it is about being realistic. Too much pessimism can kill any good idea. Too much optimism can as well by leading us down a path to failure. Successful people are more often realistic people. They are motivated by their optimism but are realistic enough to see the risks and evaluate them in a hard-nosed way.

“The pessimist sees only the tunnel; the optimist sees the light at the end of the tunnel; the realist sees the tunnel and the light – and the next tunnel.” – Sydney J. Harris

Aaron Orendorff is the founder of iconiContent and a regular contributor at Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, Fast Company, Business Insider and more. Connect with him about content marketing (and bunnies) on Facebook or Twitter.

Wishing you well,

Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.