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Rebuilding Optimism: Engineering a Vision for the Future

[Guest blogger Nina Peterson is COO and Partner at Wisdom Works.]

An optimist is the human personification of spring.
— Susan J. Bissonette

Many people wait for the first signs of spring to shift into their sunnier seasonal disposition. This year I’m feeling the warmth of Colorado’s first April days with a sense of relief — that the world outside is finally catching up with my mood. Since the New Year, I have been abundantly optimistic. And that’s a little surprising.

It’s actually a smug time for pessimists: While mass layoffs have slowed, millions of Americans still face the challenge of unemployment. The earth recently dealt several nasty blows to thousands of people. In our industry, potential work that had been put on hold is — still on hold. So, you might ask, why so optimistic?

Many words are often confused with optimism: hope, confidence, faith, idealism. To be sure, they all serve a purpose, and they do share a quality of believing in a positive future. At Wisdom Works, the distinction we make with our clients is that optimism is linked with vision. When you have a clear vision of your future, that vision provides energy. And energy, in turn, fuels fresh new responses to your current situation. Having a vision — and leading from it — helps focus you on the actions that will get you more of what you want.

My own optimism in the face of these troubling times comes from the people I work with. Business leaders, entrepreneurs, people who guide their organizations into an uncertain future: without optimism — and its accompanying vision and energy — these people would not find the success they do. Take for instance a gathering of around 700 engineers: does that sound like a group that could inspire you?

Last month I spent a weekend at the Engineers Without Borders – USA conference. Since its inception in 2002, the organization has grown to 12,000 members engaged in 350 projects in over 45 developing countries. At the conference, engineers share success stories, best practices, and new possibilities for their work in water, renewable energy, sanitation, and all of the underlying infrastructure most of us take for granted. Every participant I met, from students to senior engineers, demonstrated a huge passion for their vision of “a world in which all communities have the capacity to meet their basic human needs.” That kind of energy is potent stuff — and infectious.

The University of Colorado build a solar-powered pump in Peru through Engineers Without Borders

The University of Colorado builds a solar-powered pump in Peru through Engineers Without Borders

Now consider these engineers arriving in an isolated village in Ecuador where the people are getting sick because their water supply is insufficient and contaminated. It can be tough to see past the despair and tackle the problem with your best talents. If you find yourself facing a challenging situation and feel yourself losing heart, know that optimism can be cultivated. Here are a few quick ideas:

  • Notice when you are stuck in a rut of negative thinking such as “this is impossible,” or “I don’t know what to do.” Check those pessimistic thoughts by asking “what else could be true?” or “what am I not seeing?”
  • Consider the long term possibilities inherent in your current disaster. The 35 minute film Lemonade follows a group of people who find new inspiration, expression, and meaning in their lives after a layoff.
  • Let positive events and emotions really sink in. Don’t hurry on to the next challenge; savor the moment. Stop and reflect on what you have accomplished and acknowledge your efforts.

As Winston Churchill said, “I am an optimist. It does not seem to be much use being anything else.” That’s the key: optimism is not just something you are, or something you believe: it’s something you use. Whether you’re rebuilding a village, an organization, or your own self image, engage a sense of fresh, new possibility and you’ll be amazed at how easy it seems.

Images courtesy Engineers Without Borders – USA

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