An optimistic attitude may only take you so far

Nobody likes pessimism, while its opposite, optimism, is generally hailed as a panacea – even though in excessive amounts it can be just as toxic. In fact, optimistic thinking is so deeply ingrained in our culture that knocking it is probably on a par with bashing equal rights or being mean to fluffy puppies. Hopefully you are not feeling too offended at this point, and are ready to find out what I mean by “toxic optimism”.

Jumping into the unknown

I am talking about the kind of over-optimism where one lets their desire for, and faith in, a positive outcome outweigh the statistical chance of it occurring, leading to lousy preparations for a less-than-optimal outcome. Speaking of suboptimal outcomes, have you heard of the Stockdale paradox? It is named after an American prisoner-of-war who survived the Vietnam war and saw fellow POW:s come and go during his eight horrific years of imprisonment and torture. The paradox comes from the fact that the captives with the most optimistic attitudes were always outlived by the others. Stubborn constant hopes for rescue or a better tomorrow drained their energy and spirits, proving fatal time after time. Indeed, the reality is that excessive optimism has killed not only POW:s, but also many business projects and endeavours, be it due to overly favourable estimates or due to unrealistic assumptions and budgeting. Many of the over-optimistic ideas were likely doomed from the get-go, but some could perhaps have been salvaged with a more pragmatic approach somewhere along the line. Over-optimism is perhaps most prevalent (or at least most visible) among entrepreneurs, but you can see it occurring pretty much everywhere in everyday life, and even in international politics. Just the other day a friend of mine sat through an hour-long meeting, the intent of which was to review a 60-page-long report. They made it through 20 pages and produced zero action points. Sounds familiar?

What if the unknown did not have to be unknown?

Most people have probably heard of the Fyre festival disaster by now, and those who have seen the Netflix documentary are aware of just how ridiculous the whole spectacle was from start to finish. For those who don’t know what it was about, the short version begins with a very optimistic entrepreneur, who builds up tremendous hype for the ultimate music festival on a Bahamian island without an actual plan for how to organize the equipment, housing, or even the performers. It ends with thousands of eager attendees stranded on a small island without food, water or any chance of getting off the island, and beginning to fight each other for the hundred or so tents – and a jailed, sued, and perhaps slightly less optimistic entrepreneur. He got as far as he did because he fired everyone who tried to “kill his vibe” (and perhaps also because he was backed by some over-optimistic investors who wanted to believe that enthusiasm could replace an actual plan).

The failed Finnish social and healthcare reform had grand goals, but lacked sufficiently realistic planning to support the vision. Insurmountable issues simply made the reform impossible to accomplish as none of the political parties would budge in their demands. At the time, I was working on a project related to the reform and was exposed to a great deal of thinking about it. Most opinions were optimistic and open-minded, while a minority thought it was absurd that anyone could believe that the reform would still come into being. In hindsight, it feels slightly surreal to have played along with the assumption that the fundamental flaws in the legislation could have been fixed – after all, the situation was something of a deadlock and a Mexican standoff. On the other hand, for many stakeholders there weren’t really any options other than to brace themselves for what was to come. But to be fair, I believe the insights generated during the project were valuable, even though the reform did not materialize as envisaged.

Sure, politics is much more nuanced than this, and you cannot attribute Finland’s failed social and healthcare reform solely to naïve, over-positive thinking. But it is fair to say that problems often arise in situations where the responsible decision-makers adopt an “everything has a way of working out in the end” attitude, while nobody develops a realistic back-up plan while there is still time – or any plan at all in some cases!

Keeping your feet on the ground and your head in the game

Perhaps there is a part of the world that is moving towards a state where reality checks are more “frowned-upon”, shooed away into the shadows of triumphant success stories; where visionaries build self-driving cars and spacecraft and launch them both into space, and so on. But the value of meticulous, pragmatic preparation has gone nowhere, and I think the amount of painstaking planning (or sheer luck) behind unicorns has been underestimated. As many industries and business environments undergo profound change, certain ventures that would have been successful yesterday may struggle today, and be total busts tomorrow. Don’t let overly optimistic thinking distract you from this reality. Channel it into inspiration to inform yourself about the opportunities you have and the risks you are exposed to, and be ready to confront that reality with a willingness to take action. As William Arthur Ward put it: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”