April 10 – Optimism

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” (Helen Keller)

Most achievements in life find their roots not in the skillful labor of my hands, but in the vast expanse of my mind. To achieve anything, to win anything, to be good at anything, I must first BELIEVE that I can. That faith, that confidence and that optimism reign supreme when it comes to determining my success or failures. I am not saying that everything I approach with enthusiasm and optimism will become a success. I am saying that everything I approach without them will fail.

Sometimes the pessimism that dooms success comes from my experience of past attempts. Because something didn’t work in the past, or because it took a very long time, I may come to believe that it cannot be done, or that it is doomed to failure due to the timing. When I allow that experience-based pessimism to creep in, I doom my efforts before even getting out of the gate.

At work I am on a very large, multi-year, global program. It is complex and difficult, and involves literally hundreds of people working together to be successful. We are at the beginning of our 5th year working n this program, and we have had many successful launches so far. There is still much to do in the next two and a half years, and we have a motivated team that believes we can achieve. But that was not always the case.

Near the beginning of this program I went to a week-long kickoff meeting. At the time there were less than 20 people working on the program, and of those only a small handful were full-time. We sat in the week-long workshop for the kickoff and discussed many aspects of our scope and timing. Near the beginning of the meeting one of the participants put up a slide that included a picture of a memo from several years earlier. That memo contained a description of a project that was very similar to what we were undertaking. That attempt had been a failure, as had several others since. We all had a bit of a “whistling in the graveyard”, nervous laugh at that slide as we pressed forward. The challenges that had done in those earlier attempts not only still loomed, but had grown in strength.

Later in the week a person who was not on the program team, but had some expertise in what we were trying to do came to talk to the group. After he presented his information, and we had our questions, he passionately told us that in his opinion what we were trying to do “could not be done”. His anger at our questioning his past attempts and why this one might be different was obvious in the redness of his face.

I have never seen that second person again since that October day, but in the time since we have delivered on several key components that he told us could not be done. The person with the ancient memo is still on the team, and we have talked about how this time it has turned out very differently.

The question is, why did we succeed this time compared to past failures? There are hundreds of reasons to explain that change, but I believe the biggest reason is that at our core we have a small group of like-minded people who all believe that we can achieve, and have had that belief since the very first day. Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges we have faced, we have never lost sight of that fundamental belief that we could do it.

Even with this pattern of success, there are still times when the red devil of pessimism sits on my shoulder. That imp can no longer make me believe that the program as a whole will fail, but it can make me think that some short term assignments will fail. Sometimes I don’t even realize it is there, and I find myself telling people that it “cannot be done”. My voice may sound very different from that expert from years ago, but the sentiment is still the same. It is then that I have to catch myself and re-think what may be possible. Can I find a creative way to navigate through the bureaucracy and bring a faster solution to a question? Can I find a way to work with another group that doesn’t share my passions for my project and get their cooperation? Or, do I allow that pessimistic imp to win out? Only when I have caught myself in that thinking can I make a change my attitude and restore my own inner optimism.

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