Way too many people out there have this belief that optimism is synonymous with delusion and/or being unrealistic. I hear it all the time that optimists are just sunshine, rainbows, and flowers. They don’t see or acknowledge the hurt and pain that’s out there in the world. They are optimistic because their life is good. Their reality is distorted. One individual on Fox News went so far to say that optimism was at fault for why a US soldier killed 16 Afghan civilians because “soldiers are actually taught to deny stress and trauma, and false bravado is actually encouraged.”
But did you ever stop to think that maybe optimists are the realists? Maybe their life is good BECAUSE they are optimistic? The truth is that optimism and positivity wins. A mild dose of pessimism has its utility, and extremism of anything is unhealthy, but by and large, optimism wins. According to the research shared in Martin Seligman’s book on optimism, on average, optimists have better physical and mental health, and they are better achievers than pessimists. It’s just a fact.
That being said, optimism is not necessarily what you’ve been fed by other people. It’s not just turning everything negative into something positive, and nor is it something you can experience by just having a positive pep talk with yourself while standing in front of a mirror. Ultimately, the way you distinguish an optimist from a pessimist is based on how an individual explains to themselves the bad things that happen to them in their life.
Optimists vs. Pessimists:
When something bad happens, an optimist WILL feel bad. Of course they will. They’re human. It’s not just that their glass is half full. They’re not delusional. However, the difference between them and the pessimist is that the optimists’ feelings of helplessness are temporary and they are more likely to contextualize the bad event. The pessimist, on the other hand, views bad events as more permanent and a general occurrence in their life that is inevitable and unavoidable.
The pessimist is very passive and helpless. The pessimist accepts the inevitable doom of his or her life, and a bad event is just a reflection of that. The pessimist feels they cannot really do anything about the situation. The optimist is also passive and helpless, but that’s very short lived. Soon the optimist realizes that:
- The bad event is not a reflection of my life; it happened because of X, Y, and Z. Maybe I can’t do anything about this situation, but I can do A, B, and C to move forward.
- Bad things happen, and they suck, but that will not stop me from growing, getting better, and achieving my goals. Just because I feel bad about this doesn’t mean I need to feel terrible about my entire life.
- I have the power to move on and not feel terrible anymore.
On average, both the optimist and the pessimist experience the same bad events. Furthermore, they feel equally as bad when bad things happen to them. However, the difference is that soon after, the pessimist enables the helplessness whereas the optimist suppresses it. The pessimist feels a lack of control while the optimist takes control. The pessimist becomes passive while the optimist becomes active. Optimists forgive themselves and the negative events in their lives whereas pessimists hold a grudge.
When it comes to how we perceive the good things that happen to ourselves in life, we see almost the exact opposite thing happen. Optimists view the good events as more permanent and a general occurrence of their life whereas pessimists view good events as more temporary and are more likely to contextualize or think it is a fluke. An optimist takes a good event, savors it, and then is motivated to replicate the good event (they feel a sense of control). A pessimist, on the other hand, sours some of the good feelings by thinking this occurrence is not sustainable and is a result of luck or chance.
Both optimism and pessimism are habits. The good news is that optimism can be learned and pessimism can be unlearned. Again, it’s not to say that all optimism is good and all pessimism is bad (that’s a conversations for another day). Also, it doesn’t mean that optimists can’t have pessimistic moments or vice versa. A bad event is a bad event and everyone is going to feel bad about it. The difference, however, as Seligman states in his book, is that “in optimists, a failure produces only brief demoralization” (p.76). It’s short-lived. Optimists rebound faster and take control of their situation. This is why they are generally healthier, happier, and higher-achievers.
In Positive Psychology, there is a concept called the “ideal self” or “best possible self” which refers to creating a picture or visualizing yourself at your best. Many research studies have found that when you visualize your ideal self, it increases your mood, increases optimism, and is associated with decreased illness.
This makes sense.
It promotes a positive mindset. Rather than worrying about the future, you focus on the potential for your future to be better than your present. Also, similar to visualizing yourself cross the finish line, it gives you a temporary boost of motivation and encourages you to work towards achieving your goals.
If you want to try the formal intervention that has been developed and validated by researchers, here is how you do it.
Best Possible Self Exercise:
- Start off by brainstorming and writing down some sentences that describe what your ideal self looks like in the future. Focus on attainable goals and try starting the sentences with “In the future, I will…” Organize your brainstorming by writing about these three domains of your life:
- Personal (how your ideal self is physically, spiritually, and psychologically)
- Professional (how your ideal self is in terms of position, accomplishments, level of expertise, occupation, skills, etc…)
- Relational (how your ideal self is in regards to relationships and contact with loved ones, friends, colleagues, etc…)
- Using what you created in number one, write a detailed and coherent personal story. It does not have to be super long, but it should be realistic and make sense.
- Perform a 5-minute imagery exercise where you imagine the story you wrote. Perform this imagery exercise once a day for as little as four days or as much as two weeks.
In this exercise, you are generally given about 20 minutes to complete steps 1 and 2. Here are some excerpts from the prompt that is given to participants:
Your best possible self means imagining yourself in a future in which everything has turned out as good as possible. You have worked hard and you have managed to realize all your life goals. You can envision it as satisfying all your life dreams and development of all your best possible potentials… think of and write down your goals, skills, and desires you would like to achieve in the far future for each of the three domains, and finally merge these into a personal story like a diary.
The problem with this exercise (and its solution):
Before I discuss the problem with this exercise, I would like to highly encourage you to give this exercise a try. You don’t have to follow all the steps, but I would recommend at least spending a few minutes to perform the imagery exercise and imagine your ideal self. Go out for a walk, put on a nice soundtrack in the background, and visualize. It’s a form of introspection and helps to put things into perspective in terms of where you are now and where you want to be in the future.
However, there is just one problem with this exercise — it gives you a high and a taste of a positive future, but it does not bring you any closer to it. Don’t get content with the momentary positive feelings it gives you. If you want my opinion, here are the three steps you should take for this exercise to be successful:
- Visualize your ideal-self
- Use the positive emotions and temporary motivation it gives you to create an action plan to achieve that ideal future
- Execute the plan
If you haven’t done so already, check out my previous post where I talk about the different stages of creativity and how you can leverage each stage when trying to come up with creative ideas and solutions.
In this post, I want to talk about the traits and personality of creative people. What do all creative people have in common? Is there a formula that exists which determines whether or not a person will be creative? If so, is it genetic or can we mimic it? Simply put, what makes a creative person creative?
In his book on creativity, author and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the insights he acquired from interviewing dozens of creative individuals. He identified ten dimensions that make up the creative personality:
1. Physical Energy vs. Rest
Creative individuals are great at balancing when to rest vs. when to exert a great deal of physical energy. They can work long hours and come across as energetic and enthusiastic, but they also take a significant amount of time to rest and recuperate.
Logically, this makes sense. When you think about creativity, the one thing I always say is that it is a result of conscious, hard work. This requires immense dedication and physical energy. At the same time, however, one of the stages of creativity is incubation which suggests that periods of rest and distraction are critical for coming up with new ideas and solving problems you are stuck on. The key thing with creative people is that they are aware of when they are most energetic vs. when they are least energetic and adjust their schedules accordingly. Csikszentmihalyi (2009) writes that “the energy is under their own control — it is not controlled by the calendar, the clock, or an external schedule” (p. 58).
Pay attention to when your energy levels are high and when they wane, and try to adjust accordingly.
2. Smart vs. Naive
Are smarter people more creative? Well, not necessarily. Creative people have the potential to be more creative, but often times, people with high IQ get complacent and (1) don’t put in the effort necessary to be successful and (2) lose the curiosity necessary to be creative.
There are two types of thinking that affect our creativity — convergent and divergent. Convergent thinking is generally measured by IQ and involves us being able to think logically and rationally to solve a problem with a fixed answer. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, is related to curiosity and is the ability to come up with new ideas when there is no clearly-defined solution. Both types of thinking are essential for creativity. We need divergent thinking to come up with ideas and think outside of the box, but we need convergent thinking to decide on the feasibility and value of the ideas we have generated.
Creative individuals are smart in the sense that they are experts in their domain, but they retain a sense of childishness or naiveté as they are capable of approaching problems with a fresh mind and as if they know nothing about the problem.
3. Playful vs. Disciplined
To develop a creative product, you must work hard and stay disciplined. You must be driven and persevere in the face of adversity. However, in addition to this discipline, creative people are often playful, cheerful, and sometimes even silly. In other words, they are both responsible and irresponsible. For example, individuals may be playful or carefree when it comes to how they approach their relationships with others, yet they are extremely serious and disciplined when it comes to mastering their craft.
4. Imaginative vs. Realistic
You might think that whether you are more imaginative or realistic depends largely on the type of creativity you are focused on. For example, an artist is probably more imaginative whereas a scientist is more realistic. However, creative people are generally capable of both. They can come up with new ideas (imaginative), but they are also capable of executing and pursuing only those ideas that make sense (realistic). As Csikszentmihalyi (2009) states, “the novelty they see is rooted in creativity” (p. 63).
In a way, this is related to how we need to be capable of both convergent and divergent thinking. We need to be imaginative to generate ideas, but we also need to be realistic and decide how to make those ideas useful.
5. Introverted vs. Extroverted
You might think that creative people are more introverted. After all, if the key to creativity is hard work, then they probably don’t have much time or interest in interacting with others. They’re just working. However, as I stated in my previous post, this idea that creativity is about individual work is a myth. More often than not, creative people value collaboration as it promotes the exchange of ideas and allows you to extract value from others who may be experts in domains that you are less proficient in.
You need to have moments of introversion so that you can get the work done and convert ideas into products, but you also need to have moments of extroversion so that you can generate ideas and learn from what is around you.
If you want to be creative, learn to be comfortable in your own company so that you can focus and work when needed, but also learn to be comfortable around others so that you can share ideas and learn from the world you are living in.
6. Ambitious Vs. Selfless
This could also be viewed as proud vs. humble. You would assume that people who are both creative and have ‘made it’ in terms of success are arrogant, yet you would find that many of them are humble and sometimes even self-critical. They seem to possess a certain degree of humility that gets them to continue working hard to master their craft. They don’t let success get in their head and don’t take what they have for granted.
These individuals are ambitious and aggressive, for if they were not, they would lack the drive necessary to create. However, they are often also selfless in that their focus is on their craft, not on themselves. They are willing to sacrifice their time and comfort for the sake of the project they are working on. If a person was too humble, they would not believe they are capable of change and creativity, and therefore, would not pursue it. On the other hand, if a person was too proud, they would feel entitled and not put in the effort required to create.
7. Masculine Vs. Feminine
When we think about the more traditional and stereotypical views on what men ought to be or what women ought to be, we think that men are more dominant and aggressive, whereas women are more nurturing and sensitive. What creativity research suggests, however, is that creative women are generally more dominant and aggressive than other women, whereas creative men are generally more sensitive and less aggressive than other men. What does this exactly mean? Simply put, creative individuals generally have the strengths of their own gender, but also possess the strengths of the other gender. In other words, creative men and women are both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’
8. Traditional and Conservative vs. Rebellious and Iconoclastic
When we think of creative people, we think of those who break the rules or those who deviate from the norm. After all, if they didn’t deviate from the norm, they wouldn’t be considered creative. This is partly true, but also consider that to be creative, you must be a master of your domain. You must be an expert in your field. Therefore, you must learn the rules before you break the rules. Creative individuals are traditional in the sense that they know about their craft inside and out. A classical music composer, for example, is generally well-versed in music theory and possesses the knowledge and techniques of past composers. However, they also challenge the norm, try new ideas, and explore new techniques.
9. Passionate Vs. Objective
Obviously, creative individuals are passionate. If they were not passionate, they would not create. However, passion generally comes with a degree of bias. If you’re passionate about a sports team, you’re more likely to marvel at their greatness and deny their deficiencies. We’re generally very passionate and biased when it comes to ourselves and our work. Makes sense. However, creative people are also objective. Objectivity allows individuals to detach themselves from their work and view it with a less biased mindset. This is likely to increase credibility and bring to light some of the areas of improvement when it comes to their work.
10. Enjoyment Vs. Pain
Many times, we think of creative individuals as disturbed people who had traumatic childhoods or perhaps those who are often depressed and melancholic. Is that true? There are certainly a lot of cases out there of people who are very creative who did have terrible childhoods or are very depressed. However, the key to creativity is not pain. It’s openness and sensitivity. Creative people are generally very open-minded and sensitive. This sensitivity makes them vulnerable to pain. However, it also makes them open to a great deal of enjoyment.
Creative individuals are generally strong in divergent thinking. Unfortunately, because abstract ideas or ideas that deviate from the norm are not quickly accepted, individuals are prone to feeling isolated or misunderstood. It can lead to an emptiness of a sort. However, when you do come up with an idea that you feel is worth pursuing, you often feel a sense of joy. There’s this unique satisfaction or excitement that cannot be found from following the norm.
Creative people are introverted but also extroverted. They’re traditional but also rebellious. They can experience great joy but also are vulnerable to great pain. So what does this mean? If there is one word that I want you to take away from this post, and if there is one word that describes creative people, it is complexity. Creative people are complex. It is rare to find people who can operate on both ends of the spectrum, but that is why creative people are rare. Creative individuals are able to adjust their approach based on the task at hand. They are able to put in the effort needed to generate and develop ideas and solutions, but they are also able to reach out and collaborate with others so those ideas and solutions are recognized.
I often hear people say they have certain goals they want to accomplish, and yet their behaviors say otherwise. For example, you say you want that promotion, yet you continue to arrive to work late and take extended lunch breaks. You say you want to become a lawyer, yet you are hanging out with your friends two days before a big exam. For those of you whose actions don’t agree with your goals, my question to you is this — do you really want it, do you kind of want it, or do you feel you’re supposed to want it?
I really want it.
I think there are very few things that we truly want. If we really wanted something, we would be willing to put up with the struggle and adversity associated with it. If I truly wanted to be healthy and get in shape, then I would go out for a run instead of watching TV. I would tolerate the soreness from exercise and eat blackberries instead of brownies because I am intrinsically driven and it means that much to me.
In economics, there is a term called opportunity cost which refers to the cost or sacrifice you make for choosing one option over another. When I choose blackberries over brownies, the opportunity cost would be the short-term enjoyment that I get from eating a brownie or a cookie. When you choose to work overtime, the opportunity cost would be everything else that you could be doing at that time (e.g., spending time with family or friends, exercising, watching TV).
When you really want something, you feel that the gain from pursuing that goal is greater than the opportunity cost associated with it. Alternatively, you may feel that the opportunity cost of not pursuing your goals is greater than the gain you would get from doing something else. It doesn’t matter how you look at it. At the end of the day, if you really want something, you’ll go out and try to make it happen.
I kind of want it.
I think a majority of people’s goals fall into this category. We kind of want it, but maybe not as much as we want other things. For example, I kind of want to be healthier, but honestly, I enjoy the comfort of my couch and TV more than I enjoy going out for a run. I’m also a foodie so I’d rather go for the brownies than the blackberries. I’d even rather work an extra hour or two at work than go out for a run. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you’re happy with just sitting on the couch rather than working out, then by all means, sit on the couch. Now here is when this becomes a problem:
- You choose to sit on the couch and watch TV rather than going out for a run, but then you also complain that you’re not as healthy as you want to be. Every choice we make has consequences associated with it — both good and bad. If we want to be happy with the choices that we make in our life, we need to accept that this is just a fact
- You do not even want to sit on the couch and watch TV, and at best, you feel indifferent when watching TV. However, you still would rather watch TV than go out for a run. When we are not 100% committed to a goal, we tend to procrastinate and do things that require less energy instead. The book, Finding Flow, introduces a concept called ‘activation energy’ which states that we require a certain amount of energy to start an activity. Activities that are easier in nature (e.g., watching TV) or activities that we really enjoy (e.g., sports, hanging out with friends) require less activation energy whereas activities that we do not enjoy as much (e.g., exercise) require more activation energy. Because we have only a finite amount of energy, we often will opt for activities that require less energy.
So, what can you do when you kind of want something but are not 100% committed?
- Just accept it. Like I said, if you’re happy watching TV instead of working out and do not mind being a little out of shape, then do it without any guilt. If you would rather read a book than go out with friends, that’s fine!
- Find a way to decrease the amount of activation energy required. You do not need as much activation energy when you are doing something you enjoy. For example, rather than going to the gym, I opt to play sports such as basketball and baseball because I enjoy them more. I forget I am exercising and focus on the competition and skills development aspect of it instead.
- Make things easier for yourself. This is similar to #2 as this also decreases activation energy. Identify the things that get in the way of where you want to be. Perhaps you’re not focused on studying because you can’t get off your phone. If that’s the case, give your friend your cellphone and make sure she doesn’t give it back to you for three hours.
- Do some soul-searching. Why do you even kind of want it? Why do you care about it at all? What’s driving you? What is the cost of not doing it? Why do you want that promotion — is it because of the prestige, the salary, or personal satisfaction? Whatever it is that even partially drives you, fixate on that part. If that is not a strong enough motivator, I would recommend reconsidering what you truly want.
- Reset your expectations. Everyone would love a mansion and three fancy cars, but not everyone is willing to put in 80 hour work weeks for 30 years to get it. If you want that mansion so bad, then put in the 80 hours a week and you will likely get it someday. However, if you want to have a nice work-life balance, live a family-oriented life, and work only 30 hours a week, then you might need to reset your expectations on that mansion. What is the opportunity cost of striving for that mansion?
I feel I am supposed to want it.
Unfortunately, a lot of people’s goals also fall into this category. You have these goals in mind that you think are yours, but they’re actually driven by external factors. For example, when you’re young, you are told by your parents that you need to become an engineer so that you can make a lot of money and live a lavish lifestyle. If you truly feel that way, great! Good for you. The problem is that many people do end up becoming engineers, making a lot of money, and living a lavish lifestyle, but that’s not what they really want. Alternatively, they keep trying and trying to become a successful engineer, but are unable to do it because their heart is not in it.
Just think of it, of how many of our goals and ambitions are driven by what other people tell us is appropriate and okay. So many people are miserable because they feel obligated to strive for things they don’t even care for. Here’s a simple tip that can make a big difference – if someone wants you to do something for yourself, but you do not want to do it, don’t do it. Think of how many people have a negative self-image of themselves because they are told to look a certain way. Think of how many people are pursuing careers they do not even like because they were told that is the only way to not end up on the street. My question to you is this – why? If you do not want to do something, and you are willing to accept the potential consequences that come from not doing it, then why are you putting pressure on yourself to do it?
As Gary Vaynerchuk often says, there is this negative stigma associated with grown adults living in their parents’ home. People are afraid of what their friends or high school buddies might think of it. Because of the fear of what other people might say, these people end up working at jobs they dislike or continue to live in debt rather than moving back home for a few years with their parents who they love. Stop caring about what other people think. We have enough clarity and motivation issues on our own. We do not need to also worry about others and what they think about the choices that we make or don’t make.
As I said, there are very few things that we truly want. However, there are many things that we kind of want, or things we think we should want. For the goals you are truly passionate about, I believe you will put in the effort and work to achieve those goals. For the goals that you kind of want, I think it comes down to reducing external barriers, finding ways to increase intrinsic motivation, and doing a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not it is worth pursuing that goal. With goals that are driven by others – just tune them out.
Rapid personal development does not work.
Drastic changes to your current lifestyle are rarely the solution to achieving your long-term goals. The primary issue with drastic issues is that you’re relying on motivation to succeed. The problem is that motivation is limited. It runs out. Once it runs out, you regress to the same habits that you have been doing for the greater part of your life.
Why do new years resolutions fail? Because you have not worked out in six months and yet have made a goal to work out 45 minutes a day for 6 days a weeks. Why do you fail to get up at 5 am every morning? Because you have never established a disciplined sleep routine in the past.
When it comes to personal development that actually works, development that is more than just temporary, we need to accept that we do not have the discipline and willpower to make such sudden changes over a short period of time. Just think about it. If I have eaten burger and fries (or something similar) every day for the past three years for lunch, how can I all of a sudden convince myself to eat a substance-less salad? Not only will my mind rebel, but my body will too!
Slow personal development does.
In my opinion, the true solution to achieving your personal goals is what I like to call the snail’s way to personal development. Make very calculated and slow changes to your routine that seem almost non-existent, and then, incrementally increase the intensity of that change over time. For this to work, you need to be patient. Extremely patient. However, with this method, if you can just keep at it and continue to stay patient, you will start to see results and form habits that actually stick. As James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits says, “From today onward, if you aim to be just 1% better than you were yesterday, then in just one year, you will be 37 times better than you are today.”
The reason slow development works is because the changes you make are so small that they do not seem very different than what you have been doing your entire life. They require very little energy and motivation to complete, and the consequences that result from deviating from your normal routine (e.g., cravings, withdrawal, physical pain) are less severe. Below are a few examples from my own life that illustrate how this works:
- Goal: Reduce my caffeine intake and break my caffeine addiction. I usually drink about 2 cups (10 oz per cup) of coffee per day. If I were to quit immediately, I would experience major withdrawal symptoms that would severely inhibit me from being productive at work. Therefore, I really cannot do that. Nor do I want to. Instead, I have been slowly and slowly reducing my caffeine intake every month. In the morning, I still drink 10 oz of coffee. However, in the afternoon, I now drink just 8 oz of coffee. Honestly, my body can’t even tell that I have reduced my caffeine intake, and yet I am having 10% less caffeine than usual. I do this for a month (drinking 18 oz instead of 20), and after, I reduce the coffee consumption by 2 more ounces. I repeat this process for 10 months, and before you know it, I am entirely free of my caffeine addiction. Very strategic, very slow, and yet very effective.
- Goal: Start a consistent meditation routine. This slightly differs than the caffeine goal as I am trying to add a positive habit as opposed to getting rid of a bad habit. Nevertheless, the concept for incorporating a positive habit is the same. The first thing I do is block off time on my calendar to start meditating (I block off 30 minutes on my calendar in the morning since my end-goal is to meditate 30 minutes a day). This is my eventual meditation time, and therefore, I need to make sure that I do not fill this time, on any day, with any other commitment. I start off by meditating just 3 minutes a day. After a week, I increase the amount of meditation to 4 minutes a day. After another week, increase it to 5 minutes. Keep doing this until I get to meditating 30 minutes a day. Again, 3 minutes does not seem like a lot. However, in about half a year, that will turn into 30 minutes.
When taking the snail’s way to personal development, it is important to make sure you have an end goal in mind and then just break the end goal down into small pieces. Start very small. It’s very important for the goals to be process-driven and things that you can control. For example, don’t set a goal to lose an X number of pounds. Instead, set goals that target positive habits that will eventually lead to the reduction of weight. Also, be patient. This is not one of those processes where you get instant gratification. You don’t. It is easy to quit when you feel like it is taking forever to reach your goals, however, be patient. Keep your end goal in mind and remember that you will get there.
What I have presented to you is a basic and simple summary of a very powerful concept. Of course, you may encounter some hiccups along the way. In those situations, it is important to recalibrate your goals as needed. In a future post, I will discuss common struggles that you might face along the process and things that you can do to stay on course and continue to develop.