Exercising Optimism in GrieflandBy Emma Pearson
September 22, 2023
19 January 2021
I often feel very fortunate that my professional and personal lives, interests and development, are so inextricably linked. I cannot actually imagine it being any other way. I learned early on that in order for me to be able to do my professional work effectively, I had to do the personal stuff too, particularly since my professional interests revolve around people, change, transitions, teams, transformation, and all that good stuff. i.e real life.
One of my favourite coach trainers – Moira Halliday – admonished me gently once, in response to something I had said about wanting to learn something so I could use it with my clients (rather than for myself). She said, “there is no professional development without personal development”. In other words, learn for yourself, use for yourself, get your own stories, experiences and learnings, and then (perhaps maybe one day) take it to others.
Another bonus is that I read around my professional interests with as much interest and gusto as I do my leisure and non-fiction interests. Multiple books, articles and podcasts are invariably on the go.
I have been reading new research on the role and importance of trust in organisations and how it is the, or at least a, core driver of organisational results. Trust builds motivation, enables change, aligns effective execution and nourishes teamwork, and all of these together lead to results. All of that makes perfect sense to me and trust has long been an ingredient of leadership effectiveness.
What feels even more interesting in my recent forays is learning that trust “alchemises” into another attribute before it can “liberate” its power and potential. That attribute is “exercising optimism” which is the capacity to practise optimism, to work at being optimistic. With this skill-muscle, we can contemplate future options, hold onto hope and possibilities, and create something more lasting from vision and energy. All of which results in a shift, a movement, a change.
This notion of “exercising optimism” appeals enormously to me. I am sometimes chastised for being an optimist. Heck, I even chastise myself for being an optimist sometimes, because I know well enough that it can quickly become denial or an avoidance strategy. And by golly do I hate others’ sugary optimistic platitudes such as “everything will be fine” or “things happen for a reason” or “remember the good things” or other callous crap. But I hold loyally and proudly to my belief that my optimism serves me. It gives me energy. It energises me. It enables movement and change.
What I have realised here though is that optimism as a trait is not particularly useful. It can smother the painful stuff, or serve as a bypass around what’s hard – which is not particularly healthy mid- to long-term. A more useful notion is that “to exercise optimism” is work, a practice to practise, a skill. This makes sense to me, not just in the world of work, but in the world of grief too.
Exercising optimism is about looking for and holding options, but not being scared by those options. Picking over the alternatives, looking for yet others, holding the possibilities and the uncertainties, and staying hopeful. Not in a Pollyanna-ish way but in a wisdom-infused, hopeful way.
Exercising optimism is also about wondering, “what else? And what else? And what else?”. Not “what else do I want?” (because I know that that doesn’t work), but “what else can I do? What else can I be? How else can I be? Who else do I need?”
Exercising optimism brings energy, new ideas, possibilities, a new way of thinking. That new energy brings me out of a funk. Out of inertia. Into movement. Into change.
Exercising optimism builds my sense of trust that I can do this, that I can try that, that I can experiment with the other…
Ultimately that builds my versatility, capacity, skills, resilience, trust and psychological safety as I navigate this landscape of loss-filled life.
And all of which gives me a sense of faith.
Faith in myself.
Faith in my process.
Faith in my skills.
Faith in my resilience.
Faith in my capacity for survival.
Faith in my ability to thrive.
I have become a complete and utter fan of exercising optimism.