Spirit of EQ – Exercising Optimism
Eric Pennington: This is the Spirit Of EQ Podcast. In today’s podcast, we’re going to be talking about exercising optimism. Jeff, how are you?
Jeff East: I am optimistic that this is going to be our best one yet.
Eric: I love it. This probably will be because you’re going into the area that I’m really, really passionate about. The importance of optimism. And quite frankly I was thinking about this as I was coming over for this podcast, that we’ve got so many things happening in our world today…domestically and internationally…that really can challenge a person’s optimism. So let’s talk about what is exercising optimism? What does that look like?
Jeff: I’ll read the definition that Six Seconds gives us, then we can talk about it. Exercising optimism is taking a proactive perspective of hope and possibilities. You’re being proactive. So you’re actively doing it. But your perspective includes hope and possibilities. I really like this definition because it makes you look at everything.
Eric: If I put myself in the shoes of potentially half of our podcast listeners, that if someone were to say that “You don’t understand, this happened or that happened,” or “What are we going to do about this thing or that subject or that issue?” What do you say to that person?
Jeff: I would tell them to take a step back and explain to me what perspective are you coming from. What are you seeing that makes you think that’s going to be the outcome? What are the possible outcomes that you would like to see? And how can we get there? You learn to think that way.
Eric: You mentioned the word “learn.” So there is an implication with that, right? So if you’re that same person listening to this podcast that’s saying “OK, so how do I learn how to be that definition that you gave, about the hope and possibilities being proactive?”
Jeff: It’s not really complicated. You just need to be honest with yourself in the situation. You take the time to look at it. Some people are taught to do that. Some people are taught to look at what bad could happen, instead of what could happen. Think of the glass half empty versus full. It’s a mindset. And I don’t think people are born with that mindset. It’s not something that is inherent but it’s learned. We’ve talked about neural pathways before. It’s a learned pathway in their brain that they’re going to be pessimistic. The sky is falling aspect of the situation, rather than a learned pathway.
Eric: I’m going to come back to the idea of practice. A lot of times in the culture we’re in, specifically with sports. I always find it fascinating when I think of someone like LeBron James, for example. He probably is one of the more popular athletes out there today and he’s obviously very very talented and has been for a long period of time. But he didn’t just wake up one day and become that did he? I doubt it. That even with all of his talents and gifts, does he have to practice, do you think?.
Jeff: Definitely. Let me give you an example from music. When I was taking lessons to learn how to play the bass. I was optimistic that I knew I was going to have a place to play it. The people at my church said I made the mistake of saying I want to learn how to play the bass. The next week the praise team leader brought a bass and amp in and said “There you go. As soon as you’re ready you’re playing with us.” So I was optimistic that I was going to be able to share the music. And the guy I was taking instructions from said that’s the difference between you and most of the people that are taking lessons. They have no plan of ever sharing it. So they’re not optimistic. They’re not thinking about their musical gift and what joy would come from sharing their gift. They never progress.
Eric: When I think about that the idea of putting in the work if you will. What are some of the things that come from learning how to be this optimist?
Jeff: When you learn how to be optimistic, you have a little bit more ownership, or even control, of the outcomes that you’re looking for because you’re going in the situation with the idea that “I’m going to be successful, I am going to get to my outcome.” So you’re looking at that when you own something, you have control of it, so you’re going to treat it differently. I think you’re going to take the steps to succeed. You’re going to be energized. You’re going to be focused. You’re going to have that accomplish whatever is out there in front of you. It’s just a different way of looking at the situation.
Eric: That’s a very, very powerful perspective, Jeff. I know from my own personal experience my son, right now, is learning how to drive. He has his temps. His personality is that he’s got to get it right the first time. And he’s very optimistic going in. Unfortunately, he doesn’t realize that he’s new and he’s going to make mistakes and it’s not going to be smooth sailing every time. So we’re driving down the road and he comes to a stop sign, and he forgets that stop means stop. So he starts to go out on the road. And of course there is traffic coming from the opposite direction, and I tell him “Stop! You’ve got to stop!” By then he’s beating himself up. As we’ve straightened out and headed down the road, he’s “Well, I know I should’ve stopped!” I said “Grant, this is the first mistake of probably a thousand that you’re going to make in driving. The key is to keep going to keep driving because you have to.” So, when I think about that, optimism is not just for when it goes your way, Right?
Jeff: Optimism is a tool to help you when things don’t go your way. Because, like you said, you’re telling your son that we all make mistakes. When was the last time you drove through a traffic light and then you go, “Was that really green?” We’ve been driving for a long time so you still know it’s going to happen. But the optimistic thing is, as you learn, it’s going to get you to the outcome which is to safely get yourself to your destination driving the car. So if you’re pessimistic and just dwell on the mistake you’ve made, you’re not going to learn from the mistake. You’re not going to be able to move ahead.
Eric: Let’s look at the other side of the equation. There’s optimism and there’s pessimism. From the perspective of Spirit of EQ and Six Seconds, there can be styles of thinking that can be optimistic and pessimistic?
Jeff: It goes back to patterns in the neural pathways and all that fun stuff. You’ve taught yourself, and you’ve been taught to think that way. I’m an optimistic person and I think I get that from how I grew up. I grew up on a farm. And when you’re a farmer you have to go about everything with optimism. The weather’s going to be correct and you know the crops are going to grow the way they want. You have to have that or you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. So I was taught that by my parents, especially my dad, because he was the one out doing the farming. But you know there’s going to be storms. You still are optimistic, even when you know there’s going to be the bad things that don’t go the way you want. So that’s one style of thinking. Other people are taught that no matter what you do it’s going to turn out bad, you’re going to get hurt. My parents bought me a motorcycle for my 13th birthday, so they weren’t thinking about the fact that I’m going to hit a tree or something like that. They were optimistic, and rather than “No, you can’t have one because you’ll kill yourself,” Dad knew that I would love having a motorcycle. Now, that’s an extreme example, but a lot of times people are pessimistic about little things. “I’m not going to take a chance of going for that promotion,” or “I’m not going to take the chance going for this dream job that I just heard about. I’m comfortable here.”
Eric: As you’re saying that, I think about the power of optimism. Like you, my style is the optimist. However, I know we have listeners to this podcast who did have the parent or someone in their life that said “Oh no, it’s never going to work. You know you’re going to try that, you’re going to fail, and you’re going embarrass yourself.” Or you can fill in the blank with all the different scripting. I hear you saying there’s hope for the person that had that pessimistic culture, and maybe wants to make the transition to be more optimistic, am I right?.
Jeff: There’s a link back to one of the other podcasts where we talked about consequential thinking. With consequential thinking, you are thinking about the consequences. It’s a learned thing. So, if you get overwhelmed with the possible negative outcomes, you then turn into a pessimistic thinker. If you let yourself be driven by the positive outcomes, you then start to become more of an optimist. It’s a pattern that you develop. The neural pathways in your brain start developing a different way to go. As you mentioned practice before, it takes practice. You exercise the brain muscle to think differently.
Eric: You mentioned music and learning your instrument. I remember when I was taking lessons. This teacher would have me play scales, and he would just have me play them over and over. And I remember asking him why do we have to keep doing it. And he said in a year from now you’ll understand. And then during one of the first performances, it dawned on me. This was why. This was what the practice was about. It made me more familiar. You mentioned earlier about ownership. I owned it now. I knew what I’m supposed to do. I knew why this happens to this, and then you do this. At the time it did seem like drudgery. “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to keep playing these scales.” And I got to believe that some people out there are probably thinking, “Jeff, I’ve been at this for like two weeks, and I know you said this stuff about neural pathways, but I feel like all I’m doing is reverting back to “It’s not going to work.” Can it be that way?
Jeff: Yes. If you’re a pessimistic person, it’s hard to develop that optimistic pathway because you’re going to think this isn’t worth it. This is never going to work. So trust me, just keep working on it.
Eric: I’m in your camp because I’ve seen it in music. I’ve seen it in life in general. I mean there’s all these different areas. And I think it’s that initial pain, right? “It’s not working.” And we forget you’re probably right on the doorstep of the break of that new road you want to develop, right?
Jeff: Exactly. It’s being optimistic that you will become optimistic.
Eric: In a past episode we talked about Winnie, your dog. Can you go back to Winnie? Because I think she’s got some application here.
Jeff: Winnie is a rescue dog that my wife and I got about two months ago now. We talked about an incident where I picked up a broom, just to use the broom, and she exhibited the signs that she had been beaten with a stick or a broom before. Now, regarding optimism, I’m going to talk about what Winnie does. When I’m sitting on the couch and I put my shoes on, she’s optimistic that I’m putting my shoes on so that I can take her for a walk. And she exhibits all the signs of an optimistic dog who is getting ready to go for a walk. And it might be I’m just going to leave but she doesn’t think about that outcome. She’s only thinking about the outcome,”I’m going to go get to go for a walk.” So she is so optimistic about that. That’s her pattern which is a good pattern to get into. But when we’re talking about our human situations, there is a time when you need to put a little bit of the pessimism into it. The healthy pessimism. Don’t give that up because when used properly, it is a protective thing. When you do look at some of the dangers, but you don’t dwell on them, you recognize the situation could happen. That’s OK. But it’s when you only look at that, that’s when the pessimism takes over from the optimism. So she doesn’t think that. She thinks every time we’re going for a walk.
Eric: You mentioned healthy pessimism. And when we get signs that maybe certain things are not what they should be, and are not going to go the way we thought initially, that healthy pessimism can be our friend.
Jeff: Yes, it’s going to help you identify something that can keep you from getting your outcome and that’s good because now you see it, now you can address it. Whether it’s a project, whether it’s dealing with another person, or whatever it is, you see that roadblock and now you can figure out how to deal with it, go around it, remove it, whatever.
Eric: Because it’s not an all or nothing type thing. It’s not all optimism or all pessimism.
Jeff: You have to blend it to be successful. Because if Winnie would take it one step further, she would start getting pessimistic because she does get to go and walk every time.
Eric: Tell us a little bit about how optimism helps you. What am I going to get if I into this optimist?
Jeff: Well there are some very concrete things that can happen if you look at things from an optimistic viewpoint. One thing, it’s going to increase your pool of choices. It’s going to give you more options to go to something because you’re going to see more things that are there to help you get to your outcome. It’s amazing how much more you see when you are looking at it that way.
Eric: And I would imagine the opposite is true as well. Pessimism closes the number of choices. Limits the number.
Jeff: And you have a better chance of success. I don’t know about karma, but the more you are optimistic about something, the better your chance of succeeding. It just goes that way. You mentioned LeBron James. Before he goes into a game and he’s thinking I’m going to miss every shot, he’s probably going to miss most of his shots. But if he goes into the game thinking I’m going to make all my shots, he’s going to make more than he misses. So just you know your chances of success are much greater when you’re looking at it from optimism. And you’re going to look at it from the solution side of it, as well. You’re going to be looking at the things that will get you where you want to go because you have this concrete thing that “I’m optimistic that I can achieve.” It’s going to take you down that path. So you’re going to be more solution oriented. That’s the approach you’re going to take. Another thing about optimism, it’s going to increase innovation. You’re going to think of different ways. The Wright Brothers were optimistic they would get a plane in the air, so they innovated some things that nobody else had thought of. Thomas Edison was that way. Military leaders are probably that way, too, when they’re in combat. They’re going to think of new ways because they’re optimistic that they will win. So what are better ways to get there?
Eric: I want to pause on for a minute. We hear so much talk about innovation. Whether it’s hearing companies like Amazon, or individuals like Elon Musk or something like that. And we think of it in terms of industry and business. But what you’re talking about is human innovation, isn’t it?
Jeff: Yes. The end product gets there, but it’s because people are optimistic. The Apollo 11 astronauts were pretty optimistic or they wouldn’t have strapped themselves in on top of a 300-foot bomb to go to the moon. They were optimistic about the outcome. Because they put a lot of work into it. They knew the people that were designing it. They were involved in it. They were highly trained. So they had done everything they could to be optimistic. There’s a story about the NASA engineers I always thought was interesting. When they were designing and building the Apollo spacecraft Saturn 5, they looked at every event as a gate. Every time something needed to happen, you had to go through a gate. And every time you made it more complicated, it made the gate narrower. And so the narrower the gate, the harder it was to get through. Until the point they got to, the gate was closed because they made everything so complicated. So they looked at it differently. “What can we do to keep that gate open?” The wider the gate the easier it is for that step. So they worked at it from that aspect. Instead of what’s going to close the gate and keep us from succeeding, what is going to make that gate wider to be successful.
Eric: What about from the perspective, seeing beyond the present. What does that mean?.
Jeff: If you’re optimistic, you are looking at what’s going to happen down the road. That little bit of the pessimism we talked, sure, there’s going to be a rough road. But you’re seeing beyond that. If we can get through this, this is the outcome. The guy that invented the first heart transplant, there was rough patches. But this is the outcome I want. I’m optimistic we can get to that. But I know there’s going to be the difficulty. But you look past the difficulty of the outcome you want.
Eric: It’s interesting that you’re saying that. My wife just did the half marathon. When my wife came home and told me she was going to do it, I probably was close to fainting, because my wife’s not a runner. She doesn’t like running. So I’m thinking to myself “Why in the world?” So maybe I’m using the healthy pessimism. Why in the world are you going to take this on? And she was determined. She developed this plan that was in concert with a friend of hers. They took this from Couch To Marathon stuff. I mean they were just all in it. Getting up at 5:30 in the morning. And I remember her telling me about how much it hurt and, “Oh my gosh, this weekend I’ve got to do the 10-mile run” and all of the above. And I remember her telling me after she finished the race. She has plantar fasciitis. That was the other thing that came about. She said “I was determined that I was going to complete it regardless of my time. I was going to finish that race.” And it really was super inspiring. Because she had what you just described here, this optimism, that “I’m going to get to the finish line. And there’s going to be some complications but I’m going to get there now.” A half marathon, I think that statistic is like five, less than five percent of the population does that. But it just connects so well to what you’re saying here because that’s really kind of like life, isn’t it?
Jeff: It’s exactly that. You go into it honestly knowing that you’re you’re going to have hard work. You’re going to have setbacks. You’re going to have some pain, as in her case. I know the plantar fasciitis pain, and it is not good. The optimism is “I’m going to complete what I wanted and that’s so important now.” So she saw beyond the present.
Eric: Exactly. There was this idea that, out in the future, there’s the outcome that I’m looking for. And I really, really hope that not just from my wife’s story, but what we’ve been talking about, should inspire people to be optimistic. This is why you want to be an optimist. Let’s kind of close it out, Jeff, with the extremes. What would you say are the two extremes on this one?
Jeff: The two extremes are, one, being the victim, woe is me. This is never going to work. Chicken Little, the sky is falling. If you’re the victim, you have no control over anything. Now the other extreme is overconfidence. If you’re in a work situation and you have a huge project to do and you know this huge project is going to take overtime, weekends, lots of hard hard work. And your boss is all happy and cheerful. Being the cheerleader, he just kind of went down a few notches in your eyes because he’s not looking at the reality of the situation. So that’s being overconfident, where you don’t take the time to look at all the issues to get to that goal. I think it’s very easy for that overconfident person because they haven’t thought it through. Because they’ve only looked at one thing or the goal. They can easily turn back into that victim because they get hurt in the process.
Eric: The damage that comes from that overconfidence.
Jeff: From the overconfidence or the damage you do the people around you. Your NFL team is behind 49 to nothing with five minutes left and your coach is being a cheerleader, what are you going to think of that coach?
Eric: Good analogy. You’re not going to think very highly of him because it’s like you’re not even facing reality.
Jeff: If the other team leaves, I don’t know if you can still score seven touchdowns, right?
Eric: Right. So once again it’s the idea of finding the balance. The balance, that’s so key.
You can contact Jeff and Eric at firstname.lastname@example.org.