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When the Going Gets Tough, Optimists Go to the Ballpark

When the guy who’d been saddled with announcing dozens of layoffs suddenly gets laid off himself — set aside the irony: it can be a huge blow to his self esteem. The guy — information technology exec, loyal corporate leader, and consummate high achiever — is my big brother and he suffered this exact twist of fate. With a fall like that, it would appear something beyond self esteem is needed to get back up on the horse. What he seems to be drawing on, more than anything else, is an unflappable optimism.

I called him last week.  I figured this job hunt — his first in 25 years — would be a crushing experience. As the model of productivity and efficiency he’s become, I was sure he’d be relentlessly pursuing his next job. I certainly didn’t expect to hear the roaring crowds of a baseball game in the background! A little confused, I asked: “How’s the job search going?”

“Fine,” he said. “No job yet, but I’m taking advantage of all this time to go on some trips, spend time with the kids, and get healthier.” Wow. How many freshly laid-off leaders take that attitude? What is it, I found myself asking after the call, that helps some leaders thrive while others buckle in the face of adversity? How is it that some leaders use crisis to ENHANCE their lives, rather than letting it get them down?

In my brother’s case — and in the leaders I’ve worked with — there are many things that contribute to this resilient spirit, but none more powerfully than optimism. To me optimism is an attitude that says: “Maybe I can’t fully control this situation, but I can do something positive about it.” There may be a few lucky souls born with this rosy outlook hardwired, but for the rest of us, optimism is a skill we can learn and improve throughout our lives. A place to start is the Optimism Test developed by psychologist and positivity guru, Dr. Martin Seligman (it’s free and quick: just register, then click “Optimism Test”).

There are many ways to strengthen your inner optimist: books, videos, workshops, coaching, disciplined practice, and constant reaffirmation that positive thinking is a good thing. Sometimes optimism gets a bad rap: “The problem with being an optimist is you can never be pleasantly surprised!” But far from an everything-will-be-great passivism, the optimist is the hard-working visionary within us all. In good times, the optimist sees even brighter futures ahead and works toward them. In tough times, this “make the most of it” perspective is not merely helpful, but critical to our productivity and progress.

Colin Powell once said: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” I like that! It rings true with my experience that few things are as powerful in business, and in life, as the energy of human optimism. In some cases the source of our own optimism comes from others’ inspiring stories.

Consider 30-year-old golfer and PGA fan D.J. Gregory. Born with cerebral palsy, he heard from his doctors at a very early age that he would never walk. A stirring ESPN video captured the optimism that has propelled D.J. to walk 44 PGA Tour courses on his own two legs.

On the business side, my friend and colleague Peter Senge believes unrelentingly in the power of global corporations (despite their imperfections) to foster a healthier, more sustainable planet through their actions. This buoyant optimism, in an era of anti-corporate sentiments, has propelled Peter to #35 on Fast Company’s list of the 100 Most Creative People in Business.

Why does optimism work, particularly in situations that seem disastrous? Optimism literally changes our perception of the situation: whether we’re faced with crippling illnesses, layoffs, or corporate integrity that seems to be on the decline. In these times the ability to take positive steps, even when we can’t control all of our circumstances, becomes a true leader’s vision.

I’ve led Wisdom Works for years now, through all the ups and downs a business leader rides: Working with great clients. (Saying goodbye to great clients when our work is complete.) Having incredible business partners. (Losing incredible business partners.) Feeling so fired up about our firm’s mission that I could burst with joy. (Losing my joyful perspective at times.) Through thick and thin, like my brother, my most reliable asset has been the instinct to make the most of whatever life hands me.

And speaking of my brother… in this era of nearly unprecedented unemployment, when you find yourself looking to recruit top talent, consider their ability to look on the bright side. If they take your call from a ballpark, munching popcorn with their kids on a weekday afternoon, hire ’em!

Photo by werkunz1