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.
Friday is great. For most of us, it’s the last day of the workweek and the beginning of the weekend where we can be relax, be lazy if we want, and actually do the things that we enjoy. We can stay at home, or we can go out. We can spend time with family and friends rather than our manager or boss. However, if we’re excited about Friday, and we spend the greater part of our week in anticipation of Friday, then do you wonder that something might be wrong?
Think about it.
We’re happy on Friday night, Saturday, and the greater part of Sunday. Sunday night comes around and we start dealing with the Sunday night blues. We’re dreading the fact that our weekend, our mini-vacation, is over. We come to the realization that we now need to start preparing for the worst part of the week – Monday. On Sunday night, we’re sad that the good part of the week is over and now the bad part of the week is about to begin. Then comes Monday and we try to survive. On Tuesday it’s a little easier to survive. On Wednesday, we’re somewhat adjusted to the week and feeling okay because it’s hump day and half the work week is over. Thursday is also okay because it’s almost Friday, but Friday needs to get here soon! On Friday, we jump for joy because it is FINALLY Friday!
Our whole work week revolves around waiting for Friday night. However, is 57-71% of our week so bad that we’re just waiting and waiting for the moment to arrive where that part of the week is over? And we expect to live 40+ years like this where from Sunday night to Thursday we’re just waiting for Friday? Here’s an excerpt from a few talks by Gary Vaynerchuk that describe the problem with Friday:
To live your life where you love Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday, and despise Monday through Thursday or Friday morning… it’s devastating to me because you’re wasting too much of your life, and I’m trying to put pressure on the conversation to say if you love Friday that much, then you really need to look at Monday through Thursday
If you start your week being sad, and it progressively gets better, you have a problem. We spend way too much time in our lives doing our jobs. When you’re spending most of your life working, it’s important that that thing is on point. It’s a math game. If you’re spending 83% of your time, 72% of your time, 64% of your time on something you hate, that’s devastating.
We basically live to work. If you’re not happy, where are you going?
Let me say this – being excited about Friday is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be excited to have more time for ourselves, our families, and our non-work related interests. However, if you’re excited about Friday, but you are dreading Monday, then THAT is a problem. If you sleep eight hours a day and work 40 hours a week, you’re spending about 36% of your waking hours at work. You can probably add in an additional 10-15% for overtime, commute, and when you’re not at work but thinking about it. That’s almost half of your waking hours every week.
We’re never going to be in a situation where we’re 100% happy or a 100% satisfied with our work life, and sometimes we might even have to do a job that we do not like. However, if you’re so eager for Friday and not about Monday, I strongly encourage you to find what you love and pursue it, or find a way to transform what you do into something you love (or at least find bearable). If you can do that now and it’s feasible, then do it. If you can’t do it now because it’s not feasible, find a way to make it feasible.
It’s easy to fall into the trap and say to yourself “I just don’t like work” or “I am in a situation where I can’t leave my work and find something else even though I dislike it,” but if you don’t make a change, you’re going to be spending almost half of your waking life for up to 40+ more years miserable and just waiting for Friday. Find a way to make it happen. Either transform your work or find better work.
Regardless of who you are and how successful you might be, there will always be times when you start to doubt yourself. Am I making the right decision? Do I really belong here? What if I’m wrong? Am I just wasting my time? Sometimes it is a larger issue where you doubt who you are and are struggling with confidence, while other times it is a smaller issue where you’re doubting a decision you may or may not have made. Either way, the feeling sucks and it’s not productive.
Here are some suggestions on what you can do to eradicate self-doubt:
1. Positive Logical Reasoning
This idea is based on the concept of ‘cognitive reframing’ where you identify negative and irrational thoughts and you adjust your thinking to counteract those thoughts. It’s where you look at things from a different perspective. My method of ‘positive logical reasoning’ takes a similar approach where the goal is to try to logically illustrate why your situation is actually positive rather than negative.
For example, when I was blogging yesterday, I was questioning my ability to get this blog to generate a nice following. I was thinking to myself “I spent hours researching and writing a blog post and yet I got 7 views? 5 likes? I know I’m just starting out here, but how will I get to 500 views? How will I get to 5,000 or 50,000? It will take forever and it might not even happen.” A few hours later, I thought about positive logical reasoning. I said to myself “Look at this, though. 7 views and 5 likes. That’s about 71% of people liking my blog? One of those views was probably mine too so 5/6 would be 83.3% of viewers liked it? That means there must be something good about my content. If my content is liked, even by a small sample size, I just need to produce more of it and keep trying to get my stuff out there. I haven’t even started posting on social media yet or haven’t even really interacted with other bloggers. Plus, I have 30+ followers. That seems like very few, and it is. But if you think about it, that’s a high school classroom full of people who made the conscious decision to click ‘follow’ because they thought I was adding some value to their lives”
So you see what I did there. I changed my perception. The 7 views and 5 likes which were negative became positive. The 30+ followers also became positive. Also, I used logic to make it positive. I acknowledged I haven’t really shared my blog yet to anyone, but the few people that came upon it seemed to like it. So when you’re struggling with self-doubt, you need to ask yourself this – how do I use logical reasoning to prove to myself that my negative thinking is actually unjustified and wrong and that I should feel good about my current situation?
2. Take some time off. Do something active. Objectively analyze what is going on.
The thing about self-doubt, especially when it’s just that you’re doubting a decision you made and not who you are as a person, is that it has an expiration date. It’s often a ‘heat of the moment’ type of emotion that just goes away and you move on. That being said, the one thing that can make it worse is if you keep thinking about it. It’s liking poking a bear. You’re aggravating it and it will retaliate. The worst thing you can do when you are having self-doubt is to go down the rabbit hole of negativity because when you do that, you’ve extended the shelf life of self-doubt. Rather than that, I would recommend taking a break. Get out of your head.
Distract yourself with something active. If you do something passive like watch TV, you risk thinking about it (since your mind can easily get distracted from TV). If you do something active like exercising, both your physical and mental resources are tapped and you really don’t have the ability to focus on that self-doubt. Also, when I say ‘do something active’, I don’t mean you have to exercise. You could draw, garden, or even cook. Just do something that requires you to invest most to all of your psychological resources so that you really don’t have the bandwidth to focus on the doubt.
When you revisit the issue causing your self-doubt, you will have a fresher and more positive mindset. At this point, hopefully you are not at flight risk when it comes to going down the rabbit hole of negativity. Try to detach yourself from the situation and ask yourself what really is the root cause of what is going on. Going back to my blog example, I realized that I was having self-doubt because I currently am dealing with a major change in my life (leaving a job) and that has created a lot of uncertainty with regards to how I should be effectively using my time off. “Should I be looking for jobs even more? Should I be trying to self-educate? Should I revise my resume? Should I blog? Or is blogging wasting valuable time that I can be using to do something else?” Ah okay, there it was. I identified it. First, I was disorganized in terms of how I should spend my free time. Second, because I’m feeling pressured to find another job soon, I was concerned that maybe blogging wasn’t worth the investment because I have not seen the ROI on blogging yet. However, when I thought about it deeper, I reminded myself that I didn’t start blogging to get popular or make money. I started blogging because I liked it, and I was tired of thinking about blogging but not actually doing it. So, technically, if I am enjoying the process of blogging, then THAT is the ROI (not the number of views or likes I get). Everything else is just a bonus.
As you see there, from a more objective mindset, you can figure out what really is triggering this feeling of doubt. When you identify the cause of it and address it mentally, the self-doubt expires, or at least it goes away for a while (which is evidenced by the fact that I’m blogging the very next day).
3. Develop a Growth Mindset.
As I mentioned in a previous post, researcher and author Carol Dweck outlines two types of mindsets – a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is when you think that things such as intelligence, personality, and talent are mostly fixed and unchangeable. Because you think this way, you feel pressured to prove to yourself and to others that you are intelligent, talented, and have a good personality. The problem is that you’re going to constantly compare yourself to others and are going to be very self-critical which will lead to self-doubt and issues regarding self-esteem and self-confidence.
Alternatively, when you adopt a growth mindset, you acknowledge and believe that things such as intelligence, personality, and talent are things that you can develop. They’re not fixed, and therefore, you have a degree of control. As a result, you’re focused less on proving yourself and more on developing yourself. You just want to be better today than you were yesterday. When you think like that, you’re not really as concerned about what others are saying, and therefore, self-doubt is not as prominent of an issue. It’s not to say that self-doubt won’t occur. It still will from time to time. For example, you might question your effort and commitment, or you might question your progress. However, when you have a growth mindset, it’s generally easier to get out of the self-doubt because all you really have to do is remind yourself of the progress you have made. If you haven’t made much progress, you can get out of self-doubt by being forward-thinking. You can create and then execute a plan to slowly grow and develop which will get rid of the self-doubt.
As with many things, self-doubt is largely a mental game. It’s about reminding yourself that doubt and worry are not really productive and then adjusting your thinking to something that is more positive, constructive, and logical. Once you manage to do that, the next step is to create the conditions and circumstances necessary to keep self-doubt at bay.
There’s no doubt that luck plays a role in our success (and failure). To succeed, you have to be in the right place at the right time. As much as we’d like to think that we have full control over that, we don’t. For example, we cannot control where we’re born, the people we meet, or the physical and psychological environments that we are raised in. Therefore, obviously, luck is involved in achieving your goals.
That being said, let’s also not delude ourselves into thinking that luck is the only factor or the deciding factor when it comes to success. A lot of times we’ll look at others, such as athletes, and we will attribute their success to ‘natural ability.’ Or we’ll look at successful entrepreneurs and call them successful only because they came from a wealthy family and had parents who could fund their efforts. Or we’ll look at the Einsteins and the Picassos of the world and say they were gifted. I’m sure there is some degree of truth to that, however, there are many people who are 6’10” who do not make it to the NBA, many people who find a way to turn $10,000 in debt into $10 million of profit, and many who have insanely high IQs yet accomplish nothing noteworthy in their lives.
So what is it? Why are some disadvantaged people so successful while some advantaged people are unsuccessful?
The Success Formula
According to researcher Angela Duckworth, one of the main predictors of success is grit, a combination of passion and perseverance for long-term goals. This is what distinguishes the high-achievers from the rest. In her book, Grit, Duckworth shares two formulas that describe the relationship between grit and success.
Formula 1: Talent x Effort = Skill
Talent generally is used to sum up a person’s capabilities. However, with the way Duckworth uses it, it means the rate at which a person improves in skill. In other words, if person A puts in the same amount of time and energy as person B to learn something, but person A learns it better, it can be said that person A is more talented. They can more easily pick up on a skill. To a large extent, talent is what we cannot control.
To convert a raw talent into skill, you need to nurture that talent. The way you nurture it is through effort and practice. Intuitively, this makes sense.
Formula 2: Skill x Effort = Achievement
When you develop a skill, what determines whether or not you will be successful and achieve something is also effort. Intuitively, this also makes sense. Think of it this way– to become a skilled soccer player, I need to put in effort. Once I become a skilled soccer player, what determines how successful I will be is also effort. The more effort I invest, the more successful I will be.
Combining the formulas: (Talent x Effort) x Effort = Achievement
One thing you notice when you combine the formulas is that effort counts twice. According to Duckworth, effort matters twice as much as talent or skill when it comes to achieving your goals.
Grit and Effort
So what’s the relationship between effort and grit? Are they synonymous? Simply put, grit is something that allows you to put in continued effort. When you’re passionate about something and are able to persevere through challenges, you will be able to put in continued effort. Grit is all about long-term. It’s not about sprinting, but about having stamina. Gritty people can endure and persist during both the high and low moments.
The Missing Variable
In Duckworth’s equations, there is one missing component that I think is undeniable – opportunity. This is what I was referring to as ‘luck’ or being in the right place at the right time. I do not think you can omit it from the equation. You can put in as much effort as you want or be the most skilled person in the universe, but if you’re not placed in the right circumstances, you may not succeed. Unfortunately, you cannot control what you cannot control. You may never be given the right opportunity. However, given that, I will say three things:
- If you continue to persist and put in effort, chances are that you will be able to create your own opportunities.
- The more effort you put in, the less relevant opportunity will be as a factor in determining your success. Sure, you might not be the next Jeff Bezos, but you can still be pretty darn successful.
- If you succumb to the idea that you were just dealt a bad hand or are an unlucky person, then you will certainly NOT succeed.
I want to go a bit deeper into #3 which targets your mindset. If you’re of the mindset that intelligence and ability are fixed and that you were just dealt a bad hand, you’re likely adopting what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” In her book, Mindset, Dweck states that those with a fixed mindset believe that things like intelligence, personality, and other traits are fixed. As a result, their motivation is always about proving themselves. As Dweck says in her book, “If you only have a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics” (p. 6).
Unfortunately, when you have a fixed mindset, you’re likely to either (a) be successful but unhappy because you don’t feel successful, or (b) be unsuccessful and unhappy. The problem is that you’re constantly seeking to “one-up” yourself or someone else to prove your worth, or you succumb to the mindset of ‘why bother’ because it’s not like you can do anything anyways, right? Might as well just accept your fate.
Dweck states that you should instead try to develop what she calls a “growth mindset” which focuses more on the idea that basic qualities (such as intelligence) can be developed through effort, approach, and help from others. It focuses more on learning and getting better and less on the fact that you can’t control everything. Those with a growth mindset don’t believe that everyone can be Einstein or Picasso, but they believe that one’s true potential or peak is unknowable and not already decided for them. Therefore, their focus is on continuing to grow and develop to get better because maybe they can’t be a Picasso, but they can certainly be better than what they are now. You could argue that those with the growth mindset are also trying to “one-up” themselves, but the difference is the mindset.
Fixed mindset individuals are focused on proving themselves (more focused on self-worth and self-esteem) whereas growth mindset individuals are just focused on growth and development. They’re focused on growing for the sake of growing and are more intrinsically motivated. When you are intrinsically motivated, you’re more likely to do something even if there is no guaranteed tangible positive outcomes, and even when things start to get tough.
Interestingly, in her Ted talk, Duckworth states that the one thing you can do to increase grit is to adopt a growth mindset.
You can’t control the hand you’ve been dealt and nor can you control opportunity, to a large extent. Honestly, you can’t even control the outcome to a large extent. You can study hard for an exam, but you still might get a bad grade. You might work hard and still have an unhappy boss. You can’t control it, and it sucks. However, because you can’t control it, you can do just two things:
- Worry about it and be unhappy
- Stop worrying about it and focus on what you can control.
Here’s what you can control — effort and mindset. Fortunately, effort and mindset happen to be two of the more powerful variables when it comes to predicting success. Have a growth mindset, put in effort, and focus on the process instead of the outcome. Do all that and you’re off to a pretty good start.
Before I talk about how to reduce stress, I want to start off by stating that stress is not necessarily bad for you. As many of you already know, stress can actually be a good thing. From an evolutionary perspective, it can help you escape a dangerous situation (i.e., fight or flight), and from an everyday standpoint, it can help you get work done.
The Yerkes-Dodson law (see the illustration below) suggests that a moderate amount of stress leads to a state of ‘optimal arousal’ which leads to high performance. Conversely, less stress is associated with fatigue or sleepiness (low performance), and too much stress is associated with anxiety and impaired performance:
Furthermore, in addition to enhancing performance, a moderate amount of stress helps you get stronger both physically and mentally. In his talk, Tal Ben-Shahar provides us with an example and says that when you go to the gym and workout, what are you doing with your muscles? You are stressing them. So when you go to the gym regularly and repeatedly stress your muscles, they become stronger.
If you’ve read my previous blog post on flow, you know that to reach a state of flow, or optimal experience, you need to be optimally aroused. In other words, when engaged in an activity, the challenge of the activity needs to match the level of skill you have. Too easy and you’ll be bored, and if the activity is too difficult, you’ll feel anxious. See the example below:
As you see, multiple psychological theories support this idea that stress is not bad. That being said, stress becomes a problem when it persists for long periods of time or exceeds healthy levels. So what can we do in these situations to reduce our stress or prevent us from feeling overly stressed in the first place?
The most effective way to reduce stress:
Exercising, meditating, talking to a friend, taking a nap, journaling… these are all examples of things you can do to reduce stress. However, they often only address the symptoms of stress, not the cause of it. While there are some causes of stress that are outside of our control (e.g., the loss of a loved one), we can control most things that cause stress.
So for those things that we can control, what is the most effective way to reduce stress? Take action.
Stressed about your upcoming exam? Study. Stressed about a project at work? Finish it. Stressed about a stupid argument that you got into with your spouse? Talk with your spouse and apologize. Stressed about your poor health? Eat better and start exercising. Stressed that you lost your job? Start applying for new jobs.
Think about it. If you’re stressing about an upcoming exam, there’s only one thing you can do to help you prepare for your exam – study. As you study, you’ll start feeling more prepared, and as a result, you’ll feel less stressed. If you are anxious that maybe you’ll develop high blood pressure or diabetes, then start eating healthier and start exercising. It’s not fun and it is not easy. However, over time, as you get healthier, you will start stressing less and less about your health.
Taking action is often the best way to reduce stress. The next best thing you can do to reduce stress is to focus on the process and on what you can control, and stop focusing on the outcome and what you cannot control. You can control how hard you work on an assignment, but not how well it is received by your boss (only your boss can control that).
Once you learn to take action and focus on the process instead of the outcome, stress will become your ally.
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