I can’t remember ever trying to put a year into context by the third week in January, but here I am with that task. I spent much of the past year anticipating that 2021 would be better than 2020 (please!), but not fully grasping how challenging this recovery might be: when pandemic, economic disruption, civil unrest and political upheaval all meet at an intersection and demolish the roadway, we can’t calculate the angle of the uphill climb ahead in real time. But it is steep.
And as with every intersection at which we find ourselves in life, we have choices to make. Optimist or pessimist about our chances? Active participant in making choices or snarky backbencher? Risk-taking leader into the next moves, or follower content to disappear into the crowd and be swept along?
Reality is that each of us will face many choices throughout the year: we will need to be active participants some of the time, and willing to let others engage on our behalf other times. Some of us will have the capacity to take risks and lead, while others really will not have those options.
But at the cost of sounding pollyannish, we each DO have the opportunity to choose optimism over pessimism. And I believe we must do that – and then work to help those around us choose the same. So I went looking for inspiration and assistance for the task. History is full of such encouragement:
”We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.Ernest Hemingway
”In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.Albert Einstein
”The basis of optimism is sheer terror.Oscar Wilde
”I’m an optimist. I don’t see the point of being otherwise.Hubert Humphrey
”Sometimes when you’re in a dark place, you think you’ve been buried. But you’ve actually been planted.Christine Caine
”Optimism doesn’t wait on facts. It deals with prospects.Norman Cousins
”We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.Albert Einstein
”Pessimism leads to weakness. Optimism to power.William James
”Optimism is the most important human trait because it allows us to evolve our ideas, to improve our situation, and to hope for a better tomorrow.Seth Godin
”Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.Helen Keller
I can share that I have long loved the Hubert Humphrey quote, in particular. The practical sense of that always appeals to me, as does the axiom ‘grow wear you are planted,’ which seems to be the extension of Christine Caine’s quote. It isn’t that everything is great, it is that we have the capacity to make a place or a time better than we inherited it. So we should do that. Pessimism is about giving up or at least opting out. To do what, exactly? And the Oscar Wilde quote is bone-honest: healthy humans choose optimism because the alternative is dystopian (and we have recent illustrations of just that).
So I find myself back at a familiar reflection: words really matter. They aren’t the only thing, but they enable us to know the most important things: Intentions, Attitude, Plans, Progress.
Each of us – and especially organizational leaders – need to be using our words and our actions to build constructive optimism. Yes, we are facing a steep climb in 2021, but we have the confidence and the creativity and the commitment to take one step after the other. And soon we’ll be able to look back at January 2021 and say ‘we’ve come a long way.’ Godspeed.