An Argument for Optimism

When someone tells you to be realistic, what does that really mean anyway? I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite because I have blogged before about realizing, owning-up, and playing to your personal strengths. As individuals we all will face limiting factors that will exclude us from achieving certain accolades (for instance, I know I will never win American Idol, I’m simply not a good singer… to my dismay). However, I make the argument today that these types of boundaries are best tested and realized internally.

Let me set forth the argument that in the world of achieving peak human performance, optimism is the desired course. When evaluate your own performance, there is evidence to show that over the long-term you are better off overestimating your abilities. In the paper, On the Evolutionary Emergence of Optimism, researchers Aviad Heifetz and Yossi Spiegel show that high performing individuals are regularly found to be overly optimistic. These results run contrary to what one would expect. However, one of the many differences between optimists and pessimists is that pessimists are more realistic about their performance by way of either underestimating themselves, or more likely giving themselves a realistic self-evaluation.

Optimists on the other hand are likely to self-evaluate themselves as more effective than they actually are. Intuitively one would assume this to be a negative. However Heifetz and Yossi found being optimistic changes the structure of one’s environment and with optimists (as opposed to pessimists) successful tendencies proliferate faster (even when overestimated).

When pessimists accurately perceive their performance they often can find the motivation to continue. Viewing the situation as unsuccessful, it is easier for a pessimist to classify an activity as an unworthy pursuit. The positivity possessed by optimists provides these individuals with the drive and emotional support to continue, eventually mastering the skills needed, and influencing outcomes. What was once an unrealistic evaluation (by the optimists), over time now becomes reality.

This has powerful applications outside of achievement as well. Looking broadly at human performance, optimists are fighters. We (I fancy myself an optimist) do not go gently into that good night. In the study Optimists vs pessimists: survival rate among medical patients over a 30-year period when a person shows a pessimistic explanatory style (determined by the Optimism-Pessimism scale on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory assessment) their risk of mortality is 19% higher than someone who is optimistic. Being realistic is often just a defense mechanism of someone who wants to protect you or themselves from the future based on a perceived failure often with roots in a personal failure from their past. Optimists believe the past is not a good determinant of the future, and science backs us up. So if you are an enthusiast of optimizing human performance, dream big, it will suit you well.