Excellence University Blog

Self-Mastery Tip: Cultivating Realistic Learned Optimism

by Dr. Brian Higley

January 8th, 2010

Many personal and professional growth sources touch on the association between optimistic outlooks and success and/or satisfaction.  Our team has found that both research and our own personal experience has revealed two things to be true when it comes to optimism:

  1. That an optimistic outlook that is grounded in realism can be extremely helpful to well-being, personal effectiveness and relationship satisfaction.
  2. That many believe it is more “realistic” to be pessimistic than it is to have an optimistic outlook.  This often false belief is often a major barrier to the cultivation of this aspect of Self-Mastery.

This shows how critical it can be to cultivate an optimistic outlook that is also based on realism (as opposed to optimism generated through “rose colored glasses”).   Unrealistic optimism can be as damaging as pessimism when it comes to the ability to achieve important goals or experience satisfaction in life, so learning how to be both realistic and optimistic is critical.

Realistic learned optimism can be cultivated by enhancing one’s ability to both see current reality as it is while also moving toward outcomes or experiences that are satisfying to us.  Here are some ways people have been able to cultivate realistic optimism in their lives:

  • Identify methods of goal-setting that make positive outcomes and satisfaction more likely. There are many methods of increasing the probability of achievement and/or more satisfying experiences in life.  For example, much research has revealed that the more specific, measurable and realistic a goal is, the more likely it is to be achieved.  The goal “Become a better person and leader” is much less specific, measurable and realistic than a goal like “Read one chapter in my favorite self-improvement or leadership book and implement 1 idea from that book every month by the 15th of each month.”   Some people refer to this sort of goal-setting as “SMART Goal-setting;” click here for more on SMART Goal-setting.
  • Become skilled at noticing positive outcomes and satisfying experiences. Very often, people tend to overlook the small improvements in their lives while looking for the “big, miraculous changes.”  This can result in two major blocks to realistic optimism: (a) decreased motivation to continue to work on the small changes that so often are the reason for eventual large changes (b) an inability to notice that it normally takes hundreds small changes to create big changes that we desire (which can result in a basic ignorance of how big changes actually come about).  Noticing and celebrating the small changes can be a big step toward optimism based in realism.
  • Develop a way in which to reframe “failure” as just another step toward positive outcomes and/or satisfying experiences. Many people who are both optimistic and realistic realize that failure can be used to help promote success.  Instead of looking at failure as a disappointment, people with more realistic optimism tend to see it as a signal to improve their plan or that what they are currently doing will not get them the outcomes they desire.  Instead of feeling like a failure, they simply adjust their plans or their outlook on what it means to have not accomplished their desired outcomes.

NOTE TO THOSE USING THE MISSION FULFILLMENT SYSTEM: You can work toward cultivating realistic learned optimism by adding a new Objective to your system by using the “Add New Item” link (for example, “Cultivate Realistic Learned Optimism”).  You can then develop a SMART Goal related to that new Objective by using the “Add Subitem” link to the far right of the new Objective (for example, “When I regularly fail to achieve a desired goal, develop 1-5 different or smaller, more realistic goals that are more likely to bring about desired results.”).

FOR THOSE WHO ARE NOT ON THE MISSION FULFILLMENT SYSTEM: Click here to for more information and click here to sign up.

FINAL NOTE: If you were linked to this article by a video or email, please return to that link and proceed with any other instructions that you deem helpful.  For more Execution Excellence tips and tools visit our site at: www.excellenceuniversity.net

Article Filed under: 1. Self-Mastery Tips

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lindsey  |  October 3rd, 2014 at 9:40 pm

    These skills are SO important, and I cannot emphasize that enough. I used to think optimism was stupid and just set you up for failure, since what you expected would never really happen. So I thought pessimism was the way to go — expect the worst, be satisfied with whatever you get. However, this year I have really learned that there is a balance between the two, and it is this realistic optimism. Realistic optimism helps me be realistic about the situation, while also enjoying the positives of the situation. While many people tend to fear failure, I think realistic optimism helps one to learn from their mistakes and move on; it teaches you not to do that again, and that there are other options to reach your goal. Realistic optimism also helps me set and enjoy goals which are attainable (such as going to a doctors appointment instead of just “feeling better”). I think this is unbelievably important. This has been such a paradigm shift in my thinking this year, and I believe I see the world in a completely new and improved way. Not only do I feel like I can accomplish more, I also feel like I can actually enjoy these accomplishments more.

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