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The Secret to 'Real Optimism' as Revealed in Space Travel

More insights from the worlds of sci-fi and space exploration.

Key points

  • A lot of “optimism” out there is false optimism.
  • Real optimism requires a solid foundation.
  • NASA and sci-fi can both show how to build that foundation.

In my last post, I took readers on a mission to Mars and back—well, OK, not exactly. What I did do was explain the three most important personality traits for a mission to Mars, as tested and verified through NASA’s yearly HI-SEAS simulation. Of course, given the high-stress, high-stakes environment of a space mission, simulated or real, it makes a useful analogy for organizational life. Due to limitations of space (pun intended), I mostly focused on two traits last time: a thick skin and a long fuse. However, the third trait, an optimistic outlook, is just as important as the other two, which is why I wanted to come back and give this trait its due. It’s also a complex topic, with shallow or faulty understandings of optimism causing problems more than helping, which is another reason why this subject needs a full post devoted to it. And for any fans of sci-fi or space exploration, you’ll be happy to know that I will once again be drawing examples from those areas.

The Real Reason for the Controversy

Just to make my own position clear from the start, I myself am an optimist. I believe that optimism helps lead to more optimal outcomes, particularly in terms of what this blog is about: power and influence. But I also know that there is some disagreement on this topic, both in terms of the research on the subject as well as cultural attitudes. Notwithstanding some genuine differences in opinion and interpretation, I think a big reason for this disagreement is just that there are different understandings of what “optimism” actually is. As I see it, some of these understandings are not real optimism. I will call these incorrect understandings false optimism.

False optimism takes different forms. The first relates to what people nowadays call “toxic positivity,” or the tendency to ignore or dismiss legitimate types of stress (and distress) that people feel for legitimate reasons. Often, such dismissal is coupled with phony reassurances that everything will be fine without any of the hard examination or action needed to fix real problems. This is not real optimism.

Another type of false optimism is based on the idea that you always have to be happy and upbeat. This often goes together with toxic positivity, but whereas with toxic positivity you’re dismissing other people’s feelings, with the “always happy” brand of false optimism we’re often dismissing our own feelings out of the erroneous notion that if we let ourselves feel any kind of negative emotion we’re being pessimistic. That’s not being pessimistic; that’s called being human.

A third type of false optimism, one that many younger people may understandably fall for, is the idea that optimism will somehow ensure success. It doesn’t. It can increase the chances of success, yes, but it doesn't guarantee it. As I’ll explain more in a minute, with real optimism you understand that sometimes you’ll fail but you remain optimistic anyway because your eye is on the long game. This is where the harsher realities of life often separate the real optimists from the false optimists. False optimists, when faced with failure, will often ditch optimism because “it doesn’t work.” The real optimists, when faced with failure, remain optimists because they trust in their own or their team’s ability to learn from the failure and get it right next time.

The fourth and last type of false optimism that I’ll discuss has to do with the reason why people sometimes get tangled up in false optimism. The way the story usually goes is that a young, ambitious individual reads an overly simplistic article about how successful people are optimists, while the nuances of meaningful optimism are left undeveloped. This individual then adopts what they think is an optimistic outlook, but their lack of a deeper understanding leaves them only with a false optimism. The reason this tends to happen is that everyone wants to be successful but not everyone has the awareness, the drive, and the discipline to build a strong mental foundation for real optimism yet. Therefore, in their rush to be successful they often end up practicing false optimism.

But now that we’ve covered false optimism, let’s move on to the better part—explaining what real optimism is and how to practice it.

How to Practice Real Optimism

First of all, real optimism must come from a sincere belief in positive outcomes and in your and/or your team’s ability to bring about those positive outcomes. In other words, you can’t just force yourself to be an optimist, or pretend to be one, just because you read somewhere that optimism leads to success. There’s nothing wrong with success being part of the motivation, but then you should go about cultivating a solid foundation for your optimism. That means cultivating the right kinds of skills, taking the right kinds of actions, surrounding yourself with the right kinds of people, and reading the right kinds of blogs (perhaps this one, for example!).

Next, real optimism is real-istic. That means that when there are real problems, it acknowledges those problems instead of glossing over them with toxic positivity. And it takes the actions needed to address those problems. So acknowledgment and action are the two key components that distinguish real optimism from false optimism.

Finally, real optimism doesn’t put on a show of phony cheerfulness at all times. When the crew of Apollo 13 famously notified NASA’s Mission Control that they “have a problem,” the mood in the Missions Operations Room became fittingly austere. But thanks to the famously unremitting optimism and faith of Chief Flight Director Gene Kranz (depicted by actor Ed Harris in the film Apollo 13), the team was able to stay focused on the problems at hand and, more importantly, solving them. Though the situation was dire, and there were many new problems that kept arising, Kranz stayed cool and optimistic through it all. But it was real optimism—that is, he had a very acute understanding of the gravity of the situation and what was at stake, acknowledged them, and was willing to do what it took to solve them while trusting in the abilities of his capable team. In other words, he had done the work and built the foundation that enabled his optimism to be the crowning ornament of his leadership, and the combination of all these things brought out the best in everyone on his team. Without that foundation, his optimism would have been little more than false optimism and it would have surely toppled under the weight of reality.

In yet one last nod to the wondrous world of space exploration and science fiction, the final scene in the movie The Martian, starring Matt Damon, basically sums up realistic optimism in under a minute. If you’ve already seen it, rewatch this clip to see what I mean. If you haven’t seen it, don’t watch this clip yet because it’s the final scene. Go watch the movie first and then come back and rewatch this clip.

Get to work. “Do the math.” Solve one problem. Then solve the next. That is realistic optimism, that is one of the top three personality traits that NASA looks for, and that is the kind of optimism that can help you launch your own power and influence into orbit.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego.