Cultivate Your Own Garden

How much optimism do you need?

Posted Oct 05, 2011

Is it possible to be too optimistic? Surely you've seen the signs. Irrational exuberance in the stock market becomes unemployment and foreclosures, a caterwauling American Idol audition becomes humiliation in syndication and that guy in the next lane who thought that he had room to merge becomes your next insurance claim. Whatever happened to "hope for the best and plan for the worst?"

In a 2007 study at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, researchers found that while optimism is a discernible characteristic of high performers, excessive optimism is a distinguishing attribute of non-performers. Why? Optimism is constructive when it creates an affirmative sense of possibility that inspires you to take productive action but destructive when it encourages the careless sense that your fortune, good or bad, is a foregone conclusion. While pretending that everything will work out for the best alleviates you from the anxiety of personal responsibility it also takes away your essential freedom to act upon your circumstances.

The great French savant Voltaire was concerned with this exact issue of unfounded positivity when he wrote his satirical masterpiece, "Candide, or Optimism." The prevailing feel-good wisdom of the day was provided courtesy of German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz who's "plentitude principle" supposed that because nature is perfect anything that can happen happens for the best. Or as Doris Day put it "Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be." Voltaire saw this "just think good thoughts" view of life as a dangerously fatalistic because it requires you to resign your personal power and simply accept your destiny.

To demonstrate the absurdity of this perspective, Voltaire creates one of the most memorable characters in all of literature, Dr. Pangloss, the idealistic tutor of the hero of this tale--the feckless and naive Candide. Sparing you a synopsis, suffice it to note that Candide is the Forrest Gump of this great book. Pangloss tells Candide in every imaginable situation where they are subjected to misery, misfortune and depravity that "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

Voltaire confronts us with a contradiction that optimism taken too far becomes a fait accompli.

The Pangloss Paradox: Optimism is useful in as much as it extends the range of our reason and purposeful creative action but when used as a substitute for either it becomes a means of self deception.

This issue of excessive optimism is of particular importance when it comes to creativity where a sense of possibility is essential. The more radical the idea the less likely we will have any meaningful experience to guide us along. Simply put, there is no data on the future where our most marvelous works take form. More so, too much fact finding is a type of resistance because it stops us from taking action: The entrepreneur who makes successive business plans instead of opening up shop or the writer who makes dozens of outlines in lieu of grinding out pages.

All learning is developmental and requires that we accelerate the failure cycle if we hope to master a new skill. Speak a foreign language, play a new instrument or sketch a picture of your dog and a casual observer can tell you at what age you stopped learning to draw. So, here is your challenge. When you are truly creative, failure is inevitable because your ambition initially extends farther than your talents. You do indeed need optimism to carry you through this difficult stage and keep your momentum. But through these failures you make adjustments, learn new skills and perhaps even develop new competencies. Whether driven by hope or dissatisfaction, it is your will that compels you to act. As Voltaire reminds us at the end of Candide "We must cultivate our own garden." 

Jeff DeGraff is a Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved and PBS special by the same name, visit his web site at www.innovationyou.com, read his blog on innovation at www.jeffdegraff.com or follow him on Twitter @JeffDeGraff