Why You Need To Stop Being So Optimistic

We all have that friend. His name is usually Jeff or something. He’s the guy that’s always in a great mood. The one that lights up the room as soon as he walks in and is always looking for the bright side of any issue. We like Jeff. Jeff keeps us centered when we spin out of control. He makes the tough times a little easier. And he’s always there to let us know that things could be worse.

But while we all depend on him to gives us a boost every now and then, the reality is that Jeff is playing a very dangerous game.

Now I shouldn’t dog on Jeff too hard. Eternal optimism truly is a learned character trait. One that even a modest amount of life experience would prove isn’t easily acquired. So it’s not that Jeff is doing anything wrong. More accurately, it’s that when it comes to reaching one’s full potential, Jeff’s mindset is merely incomplete. And while that upbeat mentality is paramount to short-term resolution, it highlights an important discernment that must be made if he is ever going to accomplish his long-term goals.

That is, the difference between optimism and perseverance.

To give you a better idea of just what the hell I’m talking about let me tell you a story.

On March 4th, 1976 Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale was presented the nation’s highest merit of American badassery. The Medal of Honor. It hung nicely on his left breast, just above the six other rows of accolades he’d amassed over his almost mythological career. And like any recipient of the military’s most prestigious citation, he had to go through some serious stuff to get it.

Vice Admiral Stockdale’s A-4 Skyhawk  was shot down on September 9th, 1965 over North Vietnam. Shortly thereafter he was captured in a small village, beaten within an inch of his life and transported to the infamous Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi. He would spend the next seven and a half years there as a Prisoner of War.

During his time as a POW, Stockton emerged as a tremendously effective leader and role model for his fellow soldiers. He led a fierce resistance against his captors, even going so far as to purposely disfigure himself so that he couldn’t be used as a piece of political propaganda. But being the group’s highest ranking officer, he was also often treated even more harshly than the others. He spent four years of his imprisonment locked in a three foot by nine foot solitary confinement cell and a majority of the rest shackled in leg irons, chained to bathroom stalls and being repeatedly tortured for information or the sheer pleasure of the guards.

He was released during Operation Homecoming on February 12, 1973. And his grit is still the stuff of legend throughout Naval culture.

In an interview with business author Jim Collins for his book Good to Great, Stockdale recounted his time at the “Hanoi Hilton” and gave some valuable insight about how he not only survived the ordeal, but emerged mentally stronger.

He spoke candidly about how he never lost faith, never gave in to the temptation to succumb, how he swore to himself that he would prevail and turn his experience into a defining moment in his life. But when asked about who didn’t make it out, his response was atypical of what we consider to be in alignment with successful attitudes.

“Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart”

This seemingly conflicting philosophy has been dubbed “The Stockdale Paradox” and it teaches a valuable lesson about long-term success.

If you’re going to accomplish your long-term goals, you must confront the brutal facts.

The truth is, it’s really easy to be optimistic when you have little to lose or little to gain. Confronting the truths about minor goals or easily attainable benchmarks isn’t all that difficult. But when you apply the same technique to the type of life-changing, Tony Robbin’s type goals we all share, things become a bit more complicated. That’s because, no matter how positive we can force ourselves to be at any given moment, optimism is finite.

When we become unrelentingly optimistic about the future, we tend to minimize the reality of our situation in favor of momentary stress relief. “No need to worry,” we tell ourselves. “It’ll all work out. Just stay positive.” And while that attitude is a hell of a lot more constructive than giving in to the tremors of self-defeat, it also does nothing in the way of actually overcoming our obstacles. In this sense, we’re using optimism as a mental crutch rather than a motivating force.

Stockdale understood this, and when faced with challenges more harrowing than just about any of us will ever know, he chose to confront the facts about his situation. He was not getting out by Christmas, probably not even by next Christmas or the one after that. But although he was able to admit the situation was bleak, there was one self-assured truth he refused to let go. He was going to get out.

This distinction is crucial in understanding the catalyst of motivation and achievement. Stockdale knew that the road was going to be long, treacherous, and filled with a form of pain indescribable by anyone who hasn’t experienced it. And only after he confronted and came to terms with these facts was he able to persevere and attain his goal. This is due, in large part, to the acceptance that many of the factors leading to his release were out of his control. This is something we tend to struggle with mentally.

Of all the primal urges we humans are cursed with, relinquishing control is one of the most deeply rooted. We absolutely cannot stand to feel like we’re not entirely capable of controlling our environment at any given moment. It gives us anxiety and makes us super grumpy. And it’s one of the main reasons that unfounded optimism can be counterproductive if it doesn’t include an element of honesty. Because the truth is that a lot of what happens to us is out of our grasp.

I often teach or sit in on workshops with young fresh-faced real estate agents. For salespeople, business planning is a funny thing. Because the very nature of the industry requires a self-starting personality to succeed, agents are often encouraged to set extremely lofty goals and share them with their peers.

As you can imagine, this leads to a lot of inexperienced agents setting goals for themselves that are likely beyond the reach of their current resources and level of experience. With so many unattainable goals floating out there in the ether, you can imagine why the industry has an 85% burnout rate in the first five years. It’s not that setting lofty goals is a harmful exercise. More precisely, setting arbitrary or unrealistic goals without confronting the facts surrounding what will actually go into accomplishing them is more than harmful, it can be fatal.

Say I’m a brand new 22-year old real estate agent. I’m fresh out of college, probably still bartending a few nights a week to pay the rent. I have no money to invest in my business and just north of zero experience.

Now say I get so pumped up at my brokerage’s business planning session that I set a goal to sell fifty homes in my first year (The industry average is like eight, in any year). Can I do it? Physically, yes. Has it been done before? Absolutely. But if those are the only metrics I’m using to measure the likeliness of my success, I’m probably in for a pretty big letdown.

The truth is I probably don’t have enough resources to accomplish my goal within that first year. And I should have taken that into account when planning, but since I’m an unfettered optimist I don’t think like that. I just show up to work every day, give it my best and tell myself it’ll all fall into place. Except what happens when it doesn’t? How long can I stay positive? How many setbacks will I be able to endure before I give up?

That’s the question for which 85% of new real estate agents are unable to find an answer.

This is a picture perfect example of the difference between optimism and perseverance. It’s not that I was wrong to set my goals so high. It’s that I set myself up for failure by attempting to control things that were out of my current reach. The fact is, it takes a lot of time, money, and setbacks for an individual to build that kind of business. And while there was certainly a one in however many chance that I could catch a few incredible breaks and wind up on the right side of fate, it’s a lot more likely to take a few years for me to reach that level.

Rather than pigeon-hole myself by claiming “I’m going to sell fifty homes this year,” what I should have been saying is “I’m going to sell fifty homes. Period. And I’m going to come in early every day, stay late every night, and work as hard as I have to until I do. No matter what.”

The difference between these statements is that the former is laced with inevitable failure, while the latter is infused with an element of perseverance. No matter how hard you work it’s probably going to take more than a year to hit that number. So rather than cement your disappointment by severely limiting your chances of success, your goals should be centered on the factors that directly correlate to your level  of effort.

Jim Stockdale couldn’t control when the war was going to end. So remaining optimistic about getting out by Christmas was a surefire way to make sure he ended up in a tremendously discouraged and limiting state of mind. Something he couldn’t afford to do. The same goes for our first year sales agent that can’t control that he doesn’t yet have the resources and experience to build a business of that magnitude that quickly. And putting all his mental eggs in that basket inhibits his ability to accomplish what should be his real goal, to become a better, more efficient professional every single day. And to put in the effort and gain the required experience to grow his business to his desired level of achievement.

The Vice Admiral wasn’t getting out of Hoa Lo by Christmas. And our young real estate professional probably isn’t selling fifty homes his first year. The difference is that one understands this and perseveres anyway, but 85% of the time, the other quits when things get tough and their optimism finally runs out.

Now, I don’t want to come across as pessimistic in any way or advise you to stay within the lines and never dream big. That’s not what I mean at all. But real goals require context and purpose. Otherwise they become arbitrary and easy to give up on. Your goals should not only have real, tangible meaning, but they should be crafted in a way that relies on your ability to persevere to a point where the outcome is a direct result of the work you put in.

I know it’s cliche, but it’s true that goals without action are just dreams. Getting out by Christmas was a dream. A fifty home rookie year is usually a dream. Getting out period, showing up every day and working your tail off until you do hit fifty? Those are goals.

So if you’re feeling discouraged about your level of achievement, ask yourself where you stand. Are you trying to make it home for the holidays? Or will you still be pressing by Valentine’s Day?

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