A Warning To Optimists

A warning to optimists – introduction

Are you so blinded by your optimism that it’s keeping you from making real progress in your life? Could the very fact that you are so positive in your outlook be a liability rather than an asset? That could all depend on whether or not you are making the best use of your current reality.

Optimism is a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation. To use Oscar Wilde’s very practical example, “The optimist sees the doughnut; the pessimist the hole!” I have generally considered optimism to be a good thing and an attitude that everyone should try to have or develop. This belief is still valid, but recently I discovered that it could be just as much of a drawback as pessimism if it is not handled properly.

A warning to optimists – the bubble bursts

It was last Christmas that my father bought me a book by Jim Collins titled “Good to Great.” At first I dismissed it as just one of those business books that’s full of impractical theories and analysis, but when I finally got round to reading it I was astounded by its simplistic wisdom and practicality.

One chapter in particular, entitled “Confront the brutal facts” is what broke my long held views on optimism. There is a story in this chapter about Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking United States Military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. During his eight year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Admiral Stockdale endured severe torture and led his men with courage in order to ensure that as many of them survived as possible.

Many years after the war he was asked by the author of the book, Jim Collins, which men did not make it out of the war prison. His answer was surprising. He said “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.” Wait a minute; I thought the optimists are always the ones who make it? Admiral Stockdale went on to say that “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end - which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Stockdale explained that the optimists died of a broken heart in the prisoner of war (POW) camps because they believed they would be out by Christmas, but Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they would say they would be out by Easter, but Easter would come and Easter would go. Then it was Thanksgiving and so on, until finally they lost all hope and gave up on life.

So it is with most optimists and dreamers in their lives. They believe that this year will be the year their dreams come true, but this year comes and this year goes. Then it is the next year and the cycle repeats itself all over again. As the Bible says in Proverbs “hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.” So with every passing year that our hopes and dreams don’t come true our hearts get broken, until eventually we give up on our dreams, and life itself.

A warning to optimists – the Stockdale Paradox

The Admiral’s insight has come to be known as the Stockdale Paradox: “Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties AND at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Most people would relate to and agree with the first part of the paradox, but the second part is often not realised by many. It is an important missing link and one you would do well to always remember and utilize.

You should always know that things will work out in the end, but realise that it is you that is going to make them work out in the end. Therefore, things will not work out without your intervention. The only way you can intervene and know what to do is by realising what gap exists between where you are now and where you want to be.

A warning to optimists – face the brutal facts

It requires total honesty with yourself to assess your current situation in relation to your dream. Is there anything you are doing today that will help you to get closer to your dream a year from now? Is your current reality in line with your destination? Consider this example: There could be two people who both run a business and want to make a million dollars over the next twelve months. One may simply go on operating the business as it is operating today and simply hope that in a year’s time things will pick up and somehow he will have more business. He would be the classic optimist. The other will analyse his business, find out its weaknesses and improve on his services and products in order to reach his target. Who is more likely to succeed? The one who faced the unpleasant realities of his business and made the necessary change is more likely to succeed.

That is the approach that is necessary in our own lives. Honestly and brutally assess your current situation. Face the hard facts. Jimmy Dean said: “I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” Don’t be a blind optimist. Utilize both sides the Stockdale Paradox and do what is necessary to succeed because, as Jim Collins states, “The Stockdale Paradox is a signature of all those who create greatness, be it in their own lives or in leading others.”

A warning to optimists –conclusion

If you are an optimist you are already half way there. Just do the rest. If you are a pessimist the journey will be slightly harder, but not impossible. Remember that it's better to be an optimist who is sometimes wrong than a pessimist who is always right. Learn from the wisdom of great men like Norman Vincent Peale, who advises that you “throw back the shoulders, let the heart sing, let the eyes flash, let the mind be lifted up, look upward and say to yourself ... nothing is impossible!

You are all you can be. Go on and be it.


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