Finding yourself

Optimism and the science of success

To hear Joy read this post in English, click here.

Miracles happen to those who believe in them. — Bernhard Berenson

That’s the type of inspirational quote that might be hand-stitched onto a pillow by someone’s grandmother and sold at the shop around the corner. It’s a really nice thought. And it’s reinforced everywhere in society. Look on the bright side, we’re told, and life will be brighter.

There’s just one problem with believing that good things happen to optimistic people, and that is that this belief is 100%, completely, totally, false, as recent scientific research has shown. In fact, studies show, this type of thinking is dangerous because it actually leads to failure.

When optimism is dangerous

Realistic optimists believe they’ll succeed, but also that they have to make success happen, by choosing the right strategies, overcoming obstacles, and working hard. Because they believe the path will be hard, they take action.

But why? Isn’t optimism a good thing?

Well, it turns out that only some forms of optimism are good, and believing that good things happen to optimistic people is … very bad. Psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson in her new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, says that, to be successful, you need to differentiate between “realistic optimism” and “unrealistic optimism.”

Realistic optimists believe they’ll succeed, but also that they have to make success happen, by choosing the right strategies, overcoming obstacles, and working hard. Because they believe the path will be hard, they take action.

Unrealistic optimists believe that success will happen to them, that the universe will simply reward them for all their positive thinking. If you raise concerns, they’ll accuse you of being negative. Because they focus only on what they want, their naïveté prevents them from achieving their goals.

Positive fantasies lead to lower achievement

In fact, as Dr. Halvorson and other scientists have found, the more important it is to you that your dream come true, the more idealizing will sap your motivation. These results hold true across studies of students looking for jobs after college, singles looking for love, and seniors recovering from surgery.

Realistic optimists send out more job applications, approach more romantic partners, and work harder on physical therapy – in each case, leading to much higher rates of success. Says Dr. Halvorson: “Whether it’s starting a relationship with your secret crush, landing a job, recovering from major surgery, or losing weight, research shows that if you don’t keep it real, you’re going to be really screwed.”

The same effect holds true in pessimism. People who are depressed or have low self-confidence are more likely to think about obstacles, and only obstacles. “I am a loser and can’t do this” is a bad and self-defeating thought.  But “This won’t be easy, and I’m going to have to work hard” is a very good negative thought that actually predicts success.

You create your own reality.

In headhunting, we have an old adage: “Headhunting would be simple, if only there were no human beings involved.”

Too true. People are irrational. But in fact, it’s the ways in which people are emotional beings that makes headhunting, and life in general, fun and fascinating.

Our lives are governed not by facts but by stories. A fact is something that can’t be refuted and can be objectively verified by anyone. A story is something we create to make sense of the facts around us.

Our lives are governed by the stories we create. That’s why it’s so important to be careful in the attitude you choose toward every thing that you hope to achieve in life.

Don’t visualize success. Visualize the steps you’ll take in order to make success happen.

Comments welcome, in Chinese, on the Chinese version of this post, here.
To hear Joy read this post in English, subscribe to the GlobalRencai podcast on iTunes, or hear or download the MP3 here.