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Positivity vs. Optimism

There is a difference between positivity and optimism.  Recently there has been a push from motivational speakers, social media influencers, and even among workplaces to be and stay “positive.”

The problem I have with the idea of always staying positive is it suggests we must see the world through rose colored glasses. We must always be joyful and happy.  We must always have a skip in our step.  It suggests emotions and feelings such as sadness, frustration, fear, anxiousness and even tiredness must be suppressed because they don’t have value. 

I recently saw a picture of two fish packed tightly head-to-tail in a half glass of water.  One fish was head down, so he could breathe because his face and gills were under water. The other fish was head up and out of the water so he was gasping for air.  The fish out of water was shouting “whoa! Half empty! Definitely half-empty!”  The other fish responded with, “Just listen to you, always the pessimist.”

Many times the people around us, and (and ourselves) feel like the fish out of water.  When we feel like we can’t breathe and things are not going well, it’s our reality.  In fact, our feelings are reality.  And they deserve validation. Even when well intended, when we inadvertently ask others to suppress their emotions by  by smiling with words such as “just cheer up,” or “smile, it’s a good day!” we ignore what they might really be feeling.  They may be drowning with too much responsibility, overwhelmed by what needs to get done, or sad about something that happened at  home before coming to work. They might not be having a good day.  Futile attempts to be positive when a situation feels anything but, makes people feel unseen, unheard, and unimportant. And that will likely set the tone for a spiral into the very opposite of “positive”.  This is also true when there are major workplace disruptions, such as layoffs, terminations, or mergers. 

Going against what society and the media tells us feels a bit counterintuitive.  However, the shift of focus from positivity to optimism could get you closer to the results you really want.  

Optimism suggests hope for a better future, regardless of the present situation. Optimism is an infinite mindset; even when things are great now, it looks to the future. It leaves room to recognize the feelings we have and others may have.  It’s says it’s ok to be in that space, whatever it is.  It allows for authenticity and empathy.  

We can make others feel seen and heard.  When they are drowning,  they can say that.  When they are overwhelmed, they can say that.  When they are sad, they can say that.  In fact, the more people are made to feel safe in expressing their true emotions,  the more optimism can show up. 

Optimism paves the way for a community or team of people to rally together,  and it also gives a responsibility to take action.  It is reminiscent of a tone that says “I hear you, I see you.  We have each other’s backs. And we are going to keep moving forward, and we are going to do it together because we believe what we are doing is important.  We all see a better future. So let’s figure out what we need to do next in spite of the circumstances.”  

In the case of the fish, imagine if the fish who could breathe said,  “I see you are upside down.  Let me help so you can breathe and then we can figure out together how we will get to the ocean.”  The fish would have felt validated and seen, and they would have been able to work on something more grandeur most effectively together.  And two fish heads are always better than one, right?

So, regardless of our current condition or state,  we can acknowledge where we are (positive or negative) and then pivot to do what we need to keep moving in the direction of our vision.

The caveat to this, of course, is that for it to be successful, there must be a shared vision (or a “Just Cause” as optimist and author, Simon Sinek coined it). This is a future state that does not yet exist.  It helps us determine direction. Everyone must have clarity and be able to state it.  It’s impossible to rally together and be optimistic about a future that isn’t shared or seen by all.  If the fish helped to turn the other fish around and they did nothing after that, they would just be accepting a fate to live forever in a crowded half-glass of water, and likely there would be residual complications.  Certainly, they would never pave the future for future fish. 

It’s always most effective and ideal when the leadership of an organization sets the tone and creates the clear vision, then shares it.  There are many exercises and routes a company can take to do this (Propel My Vision offers workshops), but there are fice elements that Simon Sinek shares in his book, Infinite Game,  that are key success factors.

A vision (Just Cause) must be:

  • For something – affirmative and optimistic 
  • Inclusive – open to all who want to contribute 
  • Service oriented – it must be for the primary benefit of others
  • Resilient – able to endure politics, technological, and cultural change
  • Idealistic – big, gold, and ultimately unachievable

In short, regardless of what motivational speakers and social media influencers might be saying, you can breathe a sigh of relief.  Be human, be you. You don’t need to sport a Polly Ana cloak of positivity,  instead you can choose to shroud glasses of vision for the future and go there together.