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What happened to optimism?

What happened to optimism?

By Hettie Brittz

The EI Activator identifies 40 essential skills for high social, emotional, and environmental intelligence. It is a unique tool in that it seeks to not discriminate against personality types that in their DNA simply do not possess a natural rose-tinted outlook on life. We think that the creators of most other EI models possess these lenses and have a strong preference for individuals who see the glass, not just half-full but almost overflowing! You have to love optimists!

But we love everybody. Even the ones who constantly see the bottom of the glass as barely wet…You may call these individuals the pessimists, while they will call themselves the realists, of course. That's nothing new, but these labels are not helpful, are they? Optimists are viewed by this group to be unrealistic, in denial, easily charmed, childish, impulsive, irresponsible, and sometimes even shallow. On the darker side of the universe, the “realists” are labeled fear-mongers with paranoia, skepticism, negativity, melancholy tendencies, and a doom and gloom mentality that pours down monsoon-like on the optimist’s parade.

There is no doubt that these two groups find it extremely difficult to dream and build something together. One sees a mountain from the foothills and despairs about the many steps that need to be taken to reach the top, while the other is already imagining the breathtaking panorama which will become visible to the one courageous enough to summit. Until these two opposite viewpoints can be married and validated by the other, mutual goals are extremely hard to formulate. The view from the bottom up and the view from the top down – together – make for much fewer blind spots, though!

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of optimism is helpful here:
1: a doctrine that this world is the best possible world
2: an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome. 

There is a reason why we decided that optimism in its conventional meaning (as above) is not very helpful as a yardstick of emotional intelligence. The dictionary definition here does not always serve as proof of high emotional intelligence. By our definition, emotional intelligence includes reading the individual, the social setting, and the environment in order to make an accurate assessment of how things are before dreaming about how great they can be. (They are not always, after all, “the best possible world.”) Thus, in my view, a pessimist or realist can be viewed as a soon-to-be-optimist, who is still collecting facts.

When faced with an unideal situation, there is always the next step to be taken, always the possibility and promise of a better outcome. I believe problems have solutions, but I will admit I believe them to occasionally have devastating consequences too. Still, with thinking, planning, strategizing, and aligning with others, there is always – even in the direst of circumstances – an actionable improvement. For those who agree with this conclusion, the conclusion is so much more than optimism. This conclusion is the result of an analysis that starts at a place that may sound pretty pessimistic. This is the inner (and sometimes audible dialogue) of the non-optimist. 

“Hey guys, we have a massive problem, potentially catastrophic! An urgent solution is needed, and we do not currently have the resources for it. I’ve got a major amount of data to review, so come back to me in a month. I just don’t know if I can solve this ..!”

A week or two passes.

“Because you have allowed me to set the optimism aside and gave me permission to feel the dread, the despair, and every other emotion that a real problem naturally evokes, I have been able to stare at the problem long enough to figure out its game and to outplay it with a plan and a strategy. Wanna hear my 3 possible solutions?”

This is the gift of the non-optimist in action. This is a gift of the person who can sit in the dark space in a posture that may look like a pity party with a mindset that does not initially sound positive at all. Yet, from that ability to embrace the negative comes the skill to make a real plan. Can you visualize a deep dark hole for a moment? And an injured person with two broken legs in the bottom of the pit? The optimist delivers a ladder from that familiar hopeful place of a quick solution and cheers the broken- legged person on to “come right up”! I can almost hear the optimist brushing off any concern with, “I’m positive this knot is close enough to the one I saw once in Cub Scouts... and it’s probably just a sprain, not a fracture, Buddy!”

The pessimist starts at a completely different point, realizing immediately that all the traditional safety mechanisms – a rope letter or a full-body harness – can never work in this case. The pessimist finds it necessary to verbalize this and the facts are correct. Once they've breathed out those negative thoughts, they start thinking creatively. Really! Once they've defined the full extent of the problem and everything that won’t work, they’re able to come up with a solution.

They are likely to gather a lot of information, by asking, “How good is your upper body strength? Are both your arms fine? Do you think your back or neck is injured?” and then coming up with an adapted harness that can pull the person out. Being resourceful in this situation takes being able to put yourself next to the person at the bottom of the pit, and to feel what they're feeling. That process is very seldom a natural skill of the optimist. Optimists flee from those “bottom-of-the-pit” feelings like fear and despair, by downplaying, avoiding, or going into denial about them.

It may be a fair last point to highlight: If I were ever stuck in a dark place, I would be in the best position if both types of people were there to assist. I’d love for the pessimist to assess and remedy whatever could go wrong with the optimist’s quick fix, and then I’d like to see the optimist’s “yes-face” smiling at me over the edge of the pit until I am safely hoisted to level ground. I’d like these two individuals to exhibit emotional intelligence by knowing it is probably not as dangerous as the pessimist thinks, and far from as safe as the optimist promised me! And then (because I am not always optimistic) I’d like the pessimist to double-check that knot.

P.S. If this blog convinces you that the value of opposite personality types is worth exploring, contact me or another member of the EIA  and let us know which relationship or team you’d like us to help maximize. That’s what the EIA does: We maximize your DNA!

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