Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Optimism Challenge

They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
--Desolation Row, Bob Dylan

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Is your glass half empty or half full?

Optimism is an interesting phenomenon. Every now and then I hear motivational speakers whose words truly fire one up. You feel confident enough to wrestle a bull bare-handed. Other times, these messengers of hope strike me as peddlers with dubious motives at best. "Make a fortune flipping houses!"

Life involves risk, but can our tendency toward optimism deceive us into taking unnecessary and imprudent risks? How can we know whether our optimism is healthy or unfounded?

Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have produced some very interesting books. One that I read recently again for the second time is Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions.  Here's another. The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain, by Tali Sharot.

As I look back over my life I see numerous occasions where optimism has served me well. For example, your odds of finding a job in a tough economy increase significantly when you feel confident. On the other hand, I've also seen and experienced instances of foolishness caused by an exuberance stirred by unchecked optimism.

In The Optimism Bias author Tali Sharot's premise is that we're actually wired in the direction of optimism. You might say that our brains are wired to see the world through rose-colored glasses (hence the cover art here.) A cognitive neuroscientist, her 2012 TED Talk carry's this descriptor: Are we born to be optimistic, rather than realistic? Tali Sharot shares new research that suggests our brains are wired to look on the bright side — and how that can be both dangerous and beneficial.

* * * *
"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." ~Sir Winston Churchill

This is an interesting statement. Mr. Churchill's observation is that optimism and pessimism exist apart from circumstances. That is, whatever the circumstances, people can be disposed toward hope or despair. In other words, optimism is an internal disposition, much like Little Orphan Annie who's continuous refrain was, "The sun will come out tomorrow."

* * * *
So, how can a person tell whether their optimism is founded or unfounded? Here's an example of how optimism can deceive:

Many years ago I worked for a company that manufactured a specialized technology. In an effort to increase sales they would frequently develop new products in areas that were not in precise alignment with what they produced. On one occasion they invented a machine that would purportedly make it easier for people in the industry to use the products they made. The machine, however, was expensive so they needed to forecast how many would sell in order to meet demand.

Sales forecasting is something that all companies deal with, lest they be stuck with inventory or perhaps create demand that they cannot fulfill.

When it came time to make a decision regarding the quantity of machines to produce, the president called a meeting of all the marketing and sales staff and grilled them as regards how many machines we each believed would sell. One said 500, another said 1000, etc. Then, he pulled out little pieces of paper which he handed to everyone in the room so we could write the number they really believed would sell. I wrote the number 200, because the lowest number given was 400. I figured it was a new technology and might be more difficult to sell than they realized.

There was one person in the room who had not been as wildly enthusiastic as some of the others. (I'll call him Pete.) This was, in part, because he had had experience as the kind of person we were planning to sell these machines to. When all the votes were in, the president read off the predictions. Pete had written the numeral four.

The decision was made to make the machines, but to err on the side of smaller quantities. When all was said and done, that first year the company indeed only sold four. And in all four cases the customers became frustrated with the contraptions and returned them.

Why was my "conservative" guess of 200 so wildly optimistic? Because of another defect in our social interactions: the influence of peer pressure. If my number was too low I might offend the super-optimists at the table. It takes a very strong person to stand their ground when they are out of alignment. As my brother once said, "Sometimes it's hard to be the smartest person in the room." In this case, that was Pete. He saw clearly the challenges ahead, and probably the deficiencies of the machine.

Much more could be said, but I'll close with this. It takes restraint to temper one's enthusiasm for an idea, or manage expectations when leading a team. The world we live in is out of balance. When emotion gets stirred in, our perceptions can also become distorted. Therefore, to find Aristotle's Golden Mean between optimism and realism is the Optimism Challenge.

No comments: