Staying productive is difficult. Nobody can meet all expectations all the time, and missed deadlines and unmet goals are disappointing, to say the least. But dealing with those disappointments—and overcoming them—is a whole lot easier when you’ve got the right mindset, namely one that author Oren Harari calls disciplined optimism.
Harari began his look at optimism based on some words from Colin Powell: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier” (p. 215).* Force multipliers, in a military sense, are attributes that make any given force stronger than that same force would be without it. Good weather can be a military force multiplier, as can new technology and the right geography. When you have a continuously optimistic view of your circumstances, you are better equipped to carry out your tasks and goals than you would be otherwise.
But optimism—disciplined optimism—is more than just putting on a false smiling face. That would be what Harari calls “passive” optimism, where you are in a “don’t worry, be happy” sort of mindset. Instead, disciplined optimism is a continuous emotional investment in the task or goal at hand, and in all the working pieces that make that task possible. It means adjusting your optimism to suit your situation (temper your optimism in the face of high risks, for example). But at the end of the day, as Colin Powell says, “If you get the dirty end of the stick, sharpen it and turn it into a useful tool” (p. 219).
Optimism is not just a way of spinning bad events to make them sound better. It also doesn’t have to be founded in the bald-faced facts of your situation. Susan Vaughan, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, says, “Optimism has little to do with external reality, and everything to do with our ability to regulate our own inner world. It is the perception of being in control, not the reality, that really matters” (p. 217). When you take on an attitude of disciplined optimism, you determine that you are in control of your fate and you can, through you own efforts, turn a dirty stick into a useful tool.
This doesn’t mean you ignore your realities. Maybe you have certain non-negotiable requirements on your time, and they limit your ability to be more productive and take control of your life. Work, family, and other obligations can become quite rigid. You should acknowledge these obligations and understand the requirements they entail. But within your obligations you always have the wiggle room and play to take control of your own situation. No matter how dirty the stick, you can shape it into something useful. Get up earlier, learn to be more flexible, or learn when to stop investing in a project so you can save time for more important things. There are hundreds of things you can do today to be more productive, no matter what your circumstances are. When you stop being controlled by your circumstances and instead start controlling them, you’ll begin to be more optimistic about them, and your work will receive the optimism force multiplier.
Optimism is a precursor to success. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is measured by your ability to maintain enthusiasm between failures.”
*Quotations are taken from Oren Harari’s book The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell.
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