How Realistic Optimism Makes You More Effective and Successful

9 days ago   •   5 min read

By Colton Hicks

Do you pride yourself on looking squarely at the truth?

You may consider yourself a realist, yet others call you a pessimist and criticize you for it. It seems a bit unfair—after all, you're the one who identifies potential problems before they turn into catastrophes.

It's admirable that a pessimist is willing to face the truth. This takes courage. But while having a pessimistic outlook comes with benefits, there are also clear limitations. A solely pessimistic approach is often a partial truth and imbalances your perspective on life—namely negatively. It can make you lose sight of the bigger picture.  And to make matters worse, it also saps you of energy and hurts the relationships around you.

We're not suggesting that you become delusionally optimistic.  Rather, there's a sweet spot between pessimism and optimism called realistic optimism.

In this article, we'll explore how realistic optimism can improve your personal effectiveness and success.

What Is Realistic Optimism?

Realistic optimism is a balanced outlook that takes the good with the bad.

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, authors of The Power of Full Engagement, describe it as "a paradoxical notion that implies seeing the world as it is, but always working positively towards a desired outcome or solution." It's rooted in truthful observations without dwelling on the negative.

The key to realistic optimism is to take a step back and reframe challenging circumstances.

Sure, negative outcomes can happen. But instead of fixating on a catastrophe or threat, you can view the situation as a challenge or opportunity. Realistic optimists recognize that they can influence the situation. They're proactive. They know there are things outside of their control, but they don't fixate on them. Rather, they find opportunities to influence the situation in ways they can control.

This is an empowering mindset to have. The obstacle is the way, as author Ryan Holiday would say.

To illustrate this, imagine you're tasked with giving a presentation:

  • A pessimist would ruminate: "I'm going to mess this up. I'll probably trip and fall on my way to the stage."  
  • An optimist would daydream: "I'm going to give an amazing presentation and everyone will love it."
  • A realistic optimist would balance the two: "I'm a little nervous. This is a big presentation. But I can adequately prepare for it by practicing and I'm confident in my abilities."

The realistic optimist doesn't fixate on negative outcomes, nor are they delusionally optimistic. They're aware of the challenge ahead, then focus on what they can control.

Harnessing Your Mental Energy

"Anything that prompts appropriate focus and realistic optimism serves performance." - Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

Realistic optimism serves high performance, helping you achieve your goals and effectively solve problems.

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz argue that skillfully managing energy, not time, is the key to high performance.  They call this the power of full engagement. To accomplish this, we must harness four human energy systems: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy.

And the ability to harness mental energy requires realistic optimism.

Your mindset and attitude play a pivotal role in high-performance situations.

In the late 1980s, Jim Loehr was working with middleweight boxing champion Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. Loehr received a call from the champ, who started expressing concerns about a recent match: "I had a negative thought in the ring today [...] A single negative thought is what gets you hit in the face."

Mancini's mental attitude– like any boxer– had a large influence on his performance in the ring. It's the difference between winning and getting knocked out.

Or consider a less extreme situation where high-performance matters: life insurance sales.

Psychologist Martin Seligman found that optimistic insurance salespeople sold 37% more insurance over two years than those who were more pessimistic.  Optimism fuels mental energy. And this is critical for salespeople who want to be more persistent and rise to the top.

But we're human—optimism isn't always easy to summon.

And in some cases, pessimism can help.

Negative thoughts can help you focus and prepare for potential risks. They can also increase your likelihood of spotting problems so you can come up with solutions. But here's the nuance: there's a fine line between accurately assessing a situation and coloring every event as negative. The former is solution-focused, while the latter is defensive and compulsive.

Realistic optimism is the key to unlocking the benefits of both optimism and pessimism, so your mental energy expands in the service of higher quality performance.

How To Be a Realistic Optimist

"When we lack the mental muscles we need to perform at our best—if we have too short an attention span, too pessimistic an outlook, or too rigid and narrow a perspective—we must build capacity by training systematically." - Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

Your mindset is something you can change.

You can become a realistic optimist through training and practice. Much as it's true physically, you can develop your mental capacity by exerting and renewing energy.

Here are three tips for developing realistic optimism, inspired by the work of Loehr and Schwartz.

1. Identify Negative Thought Patterns

Start by identifying negative thoughts—things you feel are going wrong, or might go wrong.

This shouldn't be hard if you're naturally a pessimist. But if you're an optimist, it might be more challenging. Jot them down in a journal or in a virtual document. The goal isn't to find the perfect negative thought, so don't get hung up here. Rather, we're focusing on the process of building your "realistic optimism muscles."

After you've identified a few negative thoughts, it's time to reframe them.

2. Turn Disempowering Thoughts Into Empowering Ones

Negativity tends to blind you from seeing opportunities and solving problems. Let's fix that.

We're going to treat this next step like a "mental weight-training session." Now that you've brought a few negative thoughts to your awareness, choose the ones you're fixating on and are causing significant discomfort.

Here's your mission: reframe catastrophes and threats as exciting challenges or opportunities. Each reframe is a rep.

There are a few ways you can do this.

With your negative situation in mind, ask yourself:

  • Can I influence this situation directly through personal actions or habits?
  • Can I influence this situation indirectly through interpersonal relationships and social dynamics?
  • If there are things outside of my control, can I view this situation through more empowering lenses? Opportunities to grow, learn, or build character?

Take your negative situation and run them through these questions. By the end of it, you'll have turned a disempowering thought into a more empowering one.

3. Create a Ritual

The best way to embody realistic optimism is to ritualize it.

Think of this step as the equivalent of having a fitness routine. Find time throughout the day to identify negative perceptions and reframe them in a more empowering light. Perhaps you add it as a journaling habit in the morning, or you go through the exercise mentally during your work breaks.

Over time, this process will become an almost automatic response to negativity.


Next Steps

Realistic optimism is the key to unlocking personal effectiveness and success. It's a solution-focused mindset that allows you to see opportunities in the face of challenges.  And it's something you can develop through training and practice.

Want to learn more about skillfully managing your energy? Check out our article: Signs You Are a High Performer at Work.

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