Be optimistic

optimismEach of us carries a word in our heart. For some of us the word is ‘yes.’ Yes, we believe we can succeed. Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can make a difference. Others carry a ‘no,’ with all the negative baggage that accompanies it. —Martin Seligman

Which of these two words describes you best? Are you inclined toward “yes” or “no”? What is your default setting? What is your first response to life’s stimuli? Asked another way, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Before you answer that last question, know that Dr. Seligman’s research indicates that 3/4 of Americans have a proclivity toward pessimism, so three out of four readers of this essay are in the “no” camp. Are you? Most of us have a hard time being honest with ourselves, so you might want to take a random survey among your friends and family.

Why would anyone choose to be a pessimist? (It is a choice one makes.)

  • Long term, people won’t enjoy being around you.
  • Your view of life will be sullied.
  • Your mental and physical health will suffer.

Choose to be an optimist:

  • People will be attracted to you.
  • Life will be more enjoyable.
  • You’ll enjoy better mental and physical health; optimists get sick less often and live longer.

Some people accuse optimists of being naive; after all, bad things do happen. Yes, we need to be realistic about the past and the present, but let’s be hopeful and optimistic about the future, and let’s not dwell on the negative.

I appreciate the balanced approach espoused by psychiatrist Leonard Zunin, who has identified four basic orientations:

  1. Those who see only the negative
  2. Those who see only the positive
  3. Those who see both and focus on the negative
  4. Those who see both and focus on the positive

It seems to me that number 4 is the preferred position.

When I think of an optimistic leader, former President Ronald Reagan comes to mind.

Immediately following an assassination attempt on him, while being wheeled into the operating room, he said to the physicians, “I hope you boys are Republicans.”

In 1982, at the depths of a depression, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s pollster for six years, came into the Oval Office with his semimonthly report. He told Reagan the bad news, “Thirty-two percent approval rating—the worst ever for any sitting president in the second year in office.” Reagan reportedly smiled and said, “Dick, Dick…stop worrying. I’ll just go out and try to get shot again.”

The following poem describes a young optimist; when this lad enters the workforce, I’d hire him.

I passed a sand lot yesterday,
Some kids were playing ball
I strolled along the third base line
Within the fielder’s call.
“Say, what’s the score?” I asked.
He yelled to beat the stuffing,
“There’s no one out, the bases full,
They’re winning forty-two to nothing!”
“You’re getting beat, aren’t you my friend?”
And then in no time flat
He answered, “No, sir, not as yet!
Our side hasn’t been up to bat!”


What? – Some people are optimist, some are pessimist.
So what? – It’s better to be an optimist.
Now what? – Honestly and accurately assess yourself: Which orientation do you favor? Fortunately, being optimistic is a choice.

Leaders – Be a realistic optimist; realism and optimism are not mutually exclusive. The leader’s first job is to define reality; this requires being a realist—identifying and declaring both the good and the bad. But even if reality stinks (sales are down, your stock price has dropped, and three members of your management team just resigned to work for your competitor), a good leader will adopt an optimistic attitude toward solving the problems. Be a realist about the past and present; be an optimist about the future.

Reduce large goals to doable units of work

Reduce goalsThe Guinness Book of World Records tells the true story of a man who ate a bicycle, tires and all. But he didn’t eat it all at once. Over a period of 15 days, from March 17 to April 2, 1977, Michel Lotito of Grenoble, France, dismantled his bike, melted the parts into small, swallowable units, and consumed every piece.

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to eat a bicycle, but the anecdote does suggest that a seemingly impossible goal can be accomplished if it’s broken down into small, manageable parts.

Often, goals (particularly, large and complicated ones) are never realized because we don’t know how to break down a seemingly impossible task into small units of work. If your goal is simple—get the oil changed in your car—this skill is not needed. But if your goal is large—earn a graduate degree; start your own business—you’d better master this approach.

Study the the diagram shown above. On the left hand side is a big goal that identifies what you want to do. If you ask, “How am I going to accomplish this goal?” you’ll get a set of plans. Then ask, “How am I going to accomplish each plan?” and you’ll create objectives. These can be further reduced to a set of tasks.

Keep asking “how” until you arrive at a set of tasks that can be done in one hour or in one setting. Depending on the size of the goal, sometimes you’ll need to ask “how” six or seven times. For each task you must also ask, “When will this be done?”

When a part is segmented into smaller units, it’s important that the sum of the smaller units equal the part. For instance, in this diagram, a+b+c = the goal.

A huge goal may need to be broken down into hundreds if not thousands of smaller tasks, each one contributing to the whole.

For instance, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to “put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” This enormous goal was inevitably reduced to thousands of small tasks. A small machine shop in East Texas completed one of those tasks. They fabricated a small gear that was part of the Apollo 11 spacecraft’s hydraulic pump. One day, someone approached a janitor who was sweeping up the shop floor and asked him why he did what he did. The man replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

This approach will not only help us accomplish large goals, but it will add meaning and perspective to our small tasks. A seemingly insignificant and mundane activity—like sweeping the floor—will have new meaning because it is connected to a larger, more noble goal.

What? – Major goals can only be accomplished if they are broken down into smaller, more manageable parts.
So what? – Make sure you understand this process.
Now what? – Commit yourself to a major goal; it will probably take a lot of resources to accomplish it, so choose carefully. Then, using the above diagram, break down the goal into smaller, more manageable units of work, and then start accomplishing each task.

Leaders – When was the last time your organization completed a large goal? Do you and your team members know how to accomplish major projects?

Set and accomplish goals

write-your-goals copyAn article in the March 24, 1972 issue of Life magazine featured John Goddard who, at age 15, wrote down 127 goals which he wanted to accomplish in his lifetime.

Included in his goals were: climb Mounts Kilimanjaro, Ararat, Fuji, McKinley (and thirteen others); visit every country in the world; learn to fly an airplane; retrace the travels of March Polo and Alexander the Great; visit the North and South Poles, Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal (and other exotic areas); become an Eagle Scout; dive in a submarine; play flute and violin; publish an article in National Geographic magazine; learn French, Spanish and Arabic; milk a poisonous snake; read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica; and other goals, similar in variety and scope.

By age 47, Goddard had accomplished 103 of these goals and was in the process of completing several others. Goddard was neither wealthy nor gifted when he began his amazing saga of adventure and accomplishment. He was just a young boy who believed all things were possible and that he could accomplish his goals.

I wonder how many of those experiences he would have had if he had not formally expressed them as goals.

Goal setting is good.

Goals clarify intent and focus resources. If we don’t commit to concrete goals we may drift through life, accomplishing little.

Here are some guidelines for goal setting:

  • Set goals for all major areas of life: financial, relational, physical, professional, spiritual, social, and intellectual.
  • Write down your goals. It’s not sufficient to have them only in your mind, transcribe them into your journal or computer. It’s the best way to codify your thoughts.
  • Review your progress, often. If you don’t revisit your goals regularly, they will fall off the radar screen.
  • Don’t bludgeon yourself if you don’t accomplish every goal. Partially completed goals can be very fulfilling because sometimes the journey is just as rewarding as arriving at the final destination.

What happens if you don’t set and pursue goals? You will most likely not reach your potential and you will underutilize your gifts and squander your resources. If you aim at nothing, you will hit it. Or, as Wayne Gretzky said, “You’ll miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”

“Que sera, sera. Whatever will be will be” is a cute song to sing but a lousy philosophy on which to build your life. Decide now that you are going to be a planner and that you will set and accomplish meaningful goals.


What? – Goal-setting is advantageous; it makes us more focused and productive.
So what? – Make goal-setting a part of your life.
Now what? – Like Goddard, make a list of things you want to accomplish in life. Through the years, you can edit the list, discarding some and adding others, but do keep a list.

Leaders – Does your organization have goals? Are they measurable? Do you have a public “scoreboard” that is constantly updated?

Travel extensively

globeOne sees the world more clearly if one looks at it from an angle. — Henry Thoreau

When we travel, we see things “from an angle,” and the further we travel from home, the more severe the angle.

For instance, if you live in Dallas, Texas, and you travel to Houston, Texas, you’ll see things differently, but not by much. Visit New York City, and you’ll experience a significant change in culture. Cross the Atlantic Ocean to Paris, and you’ll be more challenged. Travel to India, and you’ll think you’re on a different planet.

Mary and I have traveled to 46 countries, most of them multiple times. We try to visit one new country each year. This summer we’re going to the United Arab Emirates to visit Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

We have fond memories of traveling abroad. I remember enjoying a picnic lunch of cheese, bread, and wine on a Swiss hillside while watching a farmer cut grass with a sickle. When visiting the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, we gained access to a room full of famous paintings that are usually off-limits to the public because they are disputed assets related to unresolved war reparations from World War II. We had lunch in a cafe in Marakesh, Morocco, that was blown up by terrorist the following month. I have seen the destitute in New Delhi and the well-to-do, out-of-touch in Paris. I was in a bus wreck on the road between Tbilisi and Kabaleti. A four-hour meal shared with friends in Palermo is a memory that still gives me pause.

According to travel guru, Rick Steves, 80 percent of Americans do not hold a passport. How sad.

Travel takes time and money, but it’s worth the investment. You’ll be stretched and challenged and you’ll learn more about the world in which you live. St. Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

Here’s a link to a stout argument in favor of travel.


What? – Travel is beneficial.
So what? – Prioritize travel for you and your family.
Now what? – Book a trip.

Leaders – Encourage your team members to travel extensively. If possible, plan opportunities for team members to travel on company time using company resources.

Anticipate and reflect

Experiences aren’t truly yours until you think about them, analyze them, examine them, question them, reflect on them, and finally understand them. — Warren Bennis

My favorite word in the English language is initiate; nothing ever gets done until someone acts. My second favorite word is reflect. Wonderful things happen when we take the time to think deeply about important ideas and experiences.

Reflection is at its best when it is preceded by anticipation and experience. Here’s how the three terms can complement each other.

  • Anticipate — before you experience something, think about what you are about to do. Why are you doing it? What do you hope to accomplish?
  • Experience — experience life: read a book, visit a museum, have lunch with a friend, make a sales call, build a deck, interview for a job.
  • Reflect — after you experience something, contemplate on what happened. What did you learn? What should be the follow-up? Reflection helps make sense of experiences.

The 10/60/30 formula

In all life-experiences, allocate a certain percentage of time to these three elements: anticipate (perhaps 10%), experience (perhaps 60%), and reflect (perhaps 30%). The percentages can be adjusted for different activities.

For instance:

  • Reading a book—spend a few minutes anticipating what you hope to learn from the book, read the book, and then reflect on what you have learned. This formula might be 5/60/35.
  • A business appointment—think about what you hope to accomplish in the meeting, have the meeting, and then reflect on what transpired and the next steps of action. These percentages might be 15/65/20.
  • Vacation—research where you’re going, bon voyage, and at the end of each day reflect on what happened. These percentages might be 10/70/20.

The best reflection involves dialogue with others in which we help each other make sense of life.

Learning will be greatly enhanced when you devote even a small amount of time to both anticipation and reflection.

What? – Reflection is an essential element of learning, especially if it is linked to anticipation and experience.
So what? – The discipline of reflection will enhance your life.
Now what? – Using the 10/60/30 formula, integrate reflection into your daily life.

Leaders – Make reflection an integral part of all action. Analyze everything.