When someone tells you to be realistic, what does that really mean? I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite because I have articles out online about realising, owning-up, and playing to your personal strengths. As individuals, we all will face limiting factors that exclude us from achieving certain accolades (for instance, I know I will never win American Idol, I’m simply not a good enough singer, to my dismay). However, I do present to you that these types of boundaries are best tested and actualised.
Let me set forth the argument that in a world of people trying to reach their potential, optimism is the desired course. Dispositional optimism is a well-studied personality trait. It’s been described as an individual’s expectation that in the future, good things will abound, while negative things will happen rarely.
Science gives you permission to overestimate your abilities
When you evaluate your own performance, there is evidence to show that over the long-term you are better off overestimating your abilities. In the paper, On the Evolutionary Emergence of Optimism, researchers Aviad Heifetz and Yossi Spiegel show that high performing individuals are regularly found to be overly optimistic.
These results run contrary to what one would expect. However, one of the many differences between optimists and pessimists is that pessimists are more realistic about their performance – by way of either underestimating themselves, or more likely, giving themselves a realistic self-evaluation.
Optimists, on the other hand, are likely to self-evaluate themselves as more effective than they actually are. Intuitively one would assume this would lead to trouble. However, Heifetz and Yossi found being optimistic changes the structure of one’s environment. For optimists (in contrast to pessimists) successful tendencies proliferate throughout the optimist’s daily living (even when overestimated).
When pessimists accurately perceive their performance, these individuals often cannot find the motivation to continue a particular pursuit. Michael Scheirer of Carnegie Mellon University and Charles Carver of the University of Miami found that when optimists are faced with a barrier, they believe the goal can still be achieved. Pessimists, on the other hand, will often give up pursuing the goal.
Scheier and Carver concluded that optimists can cope with stress better and have a better ability to adapt. These are important characteristics when it comes to setting goals and achieving them. Viewing the situation as unsuccessful, it is easier for a pessimist to classify an activity as unworthy. The positivity possessed by optimists provides these individuals with the drive and emotional support to continue, giving these individuals more opportunities to eventually mastering the skills needed for a particular level of achievement, and in turn have a better chance of positively influencing their outcomes. What was once an unrealistic evaluation (by the optimists) … over time can become reality.
Real-world applications of optimism
In his book, Entrepreneurial Megabucks, David Silver described 100 of the best entrepreneurs over a period of 25 years. What they all had in common was their optimism. Studies of business people confirm that dispositional optimism plays an important role in their success. They remain optimistic regardless of previous negative experience(s). A comprehensive literature review performed by Frederick Crane and Erinn Crane suggests that optimism is the crucial characteristic that distinguishes successful entrepreneurs from unsuccessful ones.
Word of caution: some studies in the business world also show that truly unrealistic wishful thinking with no sound foundation often does not lead to success. Destructive optimism that distorts reality too much can be counterproductive. In most cases, anyone can have too much of a good thing.
Optimism: The difference between life or death?
Dispositional optimism has powerful applications outside of personal and professional achievement. Looking broadly at human performance, optimists are fighters. Optimists do not go gently into that good night. In the study Optimists vs pessimists: survival rate among medical patients over a 30-year period when a person shows a pessimistic explanatory style (determined by the Optimism-Pessimism scale on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory assessment) their risk of mortality is 19% higher than someone who is optimistic. Two studies led by Dr Erik Giltay also showed that dispositional optimism is linked to lower risk of cardiovascular death and protects against symptoms of depression.
Contrary to what many people believe, psychologists have shown that optimism can be learned and developed later in life. Martin Seligman is a famous proponent of teaching this skill set early in life. Although optimism can be inherent in people, many successful people are not simply born with this skill; if they learn about optimism, it can help them triumph in life.
Being realistic is often just a defence mechanism. We want to protect ourselves from the future, based on a perceived, imagined failure. Often this anxiety has roots in a personal failure from the past. Even so, the concern is usually fictional because few, if any, can accurately predict the future. Optimists believe the past is not a good determinant of the future, and science backs them up. So if you are an enthusiast of optimising your life: dream big. It will suit you well.
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