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In life and business, we’re often faced with challenging events. Whether it’s the latest to come out of Washington, D.C., or a review of business financials, bad news can be understandably discouraging. We might even find ourselves so frustrated by what’s going on that we direct all our focus to those negative events.
But what if, instead of getting stuck focusing on the catastrophes of life, we decided to simply focus on what’s next? What if, despite everything going on, we chose to be optimistic about our ability to play even a small role in turning things around?
The Benefits of Optimism
I’m not advocating adopting a “happy-go-lucky” attitude where you brush away anything negative. There’s a difference between optimism and toxic positivity.
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As behavior science professor Kristen Lee puts it in Psychology Today, there’s hopeful optimism, which “involves a process of anticipating positive circumstances and improved outcomes.” Then there’s what she calls forced optimism, which “during sustained periods of trauma and grief can be counterproductive, and even harmful. Toxic positivity encourages us to deny dark emotions, even though they are proportionate to the times.
Strive to practice what Lee calls hopeful optimism when appropriate. For example, if your business isn’t where you want it to be financially, instead of catastrophizing, acknowledge the challenge you’re facing and think about how you can work through it. Ask yourself this: When faced with a challenge, would you rather spend two hours talking about what frustrates you about it or two hours putting together a plan for how you’re going to rise above it?
Thinking of Challenges As Things You Can Play a Role in Changing
It’s easy to view some challenges as things you can’t personally change. For instance, maybe you shrug when a new policy is implemented at your child’s school, thinking that you have no choice but to accept it because there’s nothing you can do.
We shouldn’t pretend that we have complete power over certain situations. We don’t. For example, you can’t single-handedly increase your company’s revenue by 50% overnight, nor can you single-handedly get a bill passed by Congress.
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But we can have some role in influencing situations. Going back to the examples above, you can take specific steps to generate more customers and eventually reach your revenue goal. And you can get politically involved to increase support for that particular bill.
My point is that when we view problems as things we can’t even begin to change, we surrender our power. We give that power to other people to do as they please. But if we recognize our power and put together a plan to tackle each challenge, we’ll be in a much better position to secure good outcomes.
Focusing on the Next Steps
In terms of working through challenges, what might come to mind is creating big goals and then racing to achieve them.
However, setting goals isn’t enough. Tchiki Davis, an expert on happiness and well-being, recalls the renowned “SMART” (Specific, Meaningful, Achievable, Realistic and Trackable) goal method and states that goals need to be accompanied by action steps that you actually tackle so you can move toward reaching those goals.
For instance, if you want to play a role in stopping proposed legislation that could negatively impact your community, your goal might be to shine a light on the matter and get more people to see the harm that could come from the legislation if it’s turned into law. Your action step might be to write at least two op-ed articles in your local paper. Then, you can sit down and figure out when you’ll draft and pitch those two articles.
On the flip side, if you don’t have action steps and simply state that your goal is to play a role in stopping that proposed legislation, you’ll risk not moving the needle. Your efforts might end up being inconsistent and disorganized. You need a concrete path to impact and influence your community in that situation.
Ultimately, whether we’re facing a personal, professional or societal challenge, we can stay in the truth of how bad that challenge is long enough to get stuck in it, or we can acknowledge that the challenge exists and come up with a plan. Moving forward, my hope is that all of us, myself included, can stay out of hopelessness by continuing to make changes. Let’s focus on making plans. Optimism lies in what we do next, in spite of everything going on.
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