Getting Real about Optimism

by Terry L. Sumerlin

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Positive or negative? “Yes,” you say? Good answer, because most of us are not entirely one or the other.

On the other hand, we have all run across those who are somewhat like the little old lady I heard about. She said, “I always feel bad, even on days when I feel good, for fear I’ll feel worse tomorrow.” It would be hard to say much that might help such folks. For the rest of us, perhaps some observations regarding optimism might be helpful in our daily lives.

First of all, let me say that a lot of junk has been said about optimism and a positive attitude. I suspect that I’ve said a lot of junk on the subject. Speakers often leave the impression that, with the right attitude, one can accomplish anything. That’s not true!

Just suppose, for instance, that a very optimistic, non-athletic, six foot, fifty-something guy, suddenly decides to become a professional basketball player. Suppose he gets a professional basketball player as his coach, trains very hard every day and strongly believes in his goal. He even visualizes stardom and imagines that he can hear the roar of the crowd as he makes the game winning shot in the final game of the NBA finals. We know that no amount of work, visualization or optimism is going to take him where he wants to go. Aside from size and lack of talent, the fact is that young men play professional sports.

Based on such, could we say that attitude doesn’t matter? Actually, it not only matters, but there are times when it matters a lot to each of us.

For instance, it mattered a lot to me five years ago. That was when I had surgery for cancer. Believe me, I needed and wanted an optimistic surgeon.

Don’t get me wrong. Optimism wasn’t all I was looking for in a surgeon. But, answer this: Was I looking for a highly trained, eminently qualified surgeon who was not optimistic? I certainly didn’t want to be operated on by someone who would say to me just before surgery, “Terry, I sure don’t have a good feeling about this.”

My point is that optimism doesn’t equip or qualify one for anything he or she is not already qualified to do. Nor, by the way, does it change facts. However, it does equip one to do all the things one is equipped to do much better than pessimism.

That being the case, two things come to mind. The first of these has to do with how to maintain a more optimistic attitude.

To accomplish this, we must always be vigilant regarding what goes into our minds. Whether it involves what we read, hear from friends and co-workers or listen to on TV, our thoughts are constantly being affected positively or negatively.

I like to say that I’m so optimistic that in our house we have snooze button on our smoke alarms. However, throughout the day, my mood can and does change very quickly, as a result of all the (mis) information we’re subjected to. I’ll bet the same is true for you. For that reason, we must all pay attention to our mind food. Junk food for the mind produces junkie thoughts – which produce a junkie life!

The other thing that comes to mind is how a positive, optimistic attitude toward people enhances our people skills. My author friend, Geoffrey Tumlin, has a formula that I like very much. He says, “Good communication = Good relationships = Good life.” If communication is that important, what about the importance of having the right attitude toward people as a proper basis for communication?

People who like others, and who try to believe the best of others, convey optimism in conversation. That is true even in difficult situations. Conversely, those who are pessimistic and negative about life in general rarely have good communication skills, good relationships – or a good life.

LEADERSHIP TIP: Remember what the right attitude cannot do, but most of all, remember what it can do.


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