The Optimists Dilemma

To be positive or not to be positive, that is the question. Being optimistic can certainly motivate you towards action. Unfortunately, unadulterated optimism can also blind you to potential problems and get you to overstate your chances of success. The optimists dilemma is whether the gain in motivation is worth the price in rationally observing the situation.

The key to solving the optimists dilemma is a shift from being positive about outcomes to being positive in your interpretation of events. This may seem a little esoteric, but if you can use it properly you can be wildly optimistic without blinding yourself to the current reality.

Outcome-focused optimism is the stage of optimism that most people use. It is the kind that overestimates your chances of success and overstates the magnitude of that success. So if you are going to start a blog, a traditional optimist might start thinking to himself, “This blog is going to be a smash hit, it is going to attract millions of visitors and earn me enough money to quit my job. Yay!”

This level of optimism is naive and simplistic. Although setting an ambitious goal and working towards achieving it are good, using unbridled optimism to understate what is necessary for you to be successful is dangerous. Our friend might have quit his job to encounter immediate blogging success and found out later it would take him at least three years of twelve hour days to be making half of what he did at his old job.

Interpretation-focused optimism is different. This stage of optimism doesn’t try and delude your reasoning skills into your chances of success. This form of positivity focuses on the meaning you draw from events.

In every situation you ever experience, what determines whether you feel good or bad? The answer is what meaning you draw from it. If making less money and working more has a negative meaning to you, then you will feel awful until you change that situation. If making less money and working more at something you are passionate about has a positive meaning, you will feel much better about it.

Instead of artificially inflating his chances of success to motivate him to action, our blogging friend could have reinterpreted the situation. He could have said to himself that he doesn’t really know the chances of success of his venture, but it should be a very interesting opportunity to explore, no matter how it turns out.

Interpretation-focused optimism gets you to center on how each course of action you are going to take is positive. Rather then focus on an outcome, this form of optimism lets you appreciate the path to it. Because you are going to spend a lot more time working towards a goal then actually achieving it, this focus lets you be optimistic about the entire process.

When you are focusing on your goal you need to be real, even to the point of pessimism. Major goals take a huge amount of work. Even when you feel you deserve success you might need to work even more. Anything is possible when you work at it, but don’t delude yourself into thinking it will be easier then it really is.

Instead focus on the positive aspects that the path towards this goal will take you. Optimism doesn’t have to blind you to potential problems or pitfalls. Focus on how life is an interesting and challenging game for you to play and this is just another section of it.

  • Al Brown

    I’ve found that GENERAL optimism is better than specific optimism. For example, a particular choice or relationship may not work out as you hope, but there are incredible opportunities and people out there for you to discover.

    If you find something great, you can still be optimistic without getting attached to it. That thing or person cannot give you peace. Only a deep connection with yourself can do that. Avoiding attachment keeps you from making unwarranted investments and helps you move away from things that no longer work for you.

  • Scott Young


    That’s another great way of putting it. Specific optimism can blind you to problems, but a more general optimistic attitude can keep you afloat. Good thoughts.

  • max night

    Overall I take things as they come. I am not overly optimistic or overly pessimistic. My own predictions for the future in determining success should all depend on the specific case. If you have to be careful how you play cards at poker, don’t be too optimistic because caution would probably help you. If something looks hopeful for you never take too big a chance, but dont take it too negatively either. An analogy for this is if you take some medicine that would help get rid of your headache. Taking too much could kill you or make you more sick and taking too little wont get rid of your headache.Please reply to this post. thank you