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The Impact of Optimism

We’ve done a lot of hiring at Highland over the past year, and it’s been a reminder of a very simple truth: interviewing is hard!

Trying to gauge in one hour whether you want to spend the next 1,000+ hours working with someone is incredibly difficult. It’s been a process for the Highland team to figure out what it is that we look for in the people that we want working with us. We’ve developed an atmosphere of vulnerability and acceptance, and are intentionally becoming more diverse. How do we keep that culture while we continue to build on our values in ways we can’t currently predict? How do we hire someone who encapsulates our future as much as our present?

There is one quality that I believe makes all the difference between a hire that will be a long-term asset and one who will be a long-term problem. Communication, competency and culture are all important, but they are meaningless without optimism.

Optimism isn’t what you think it is.

When I express the importance of optimism I often find that people have bad associations with the word. This puzzled me, until I realized that often our understandings of the word “optimism” differ. So let’s figure out exactly what the word means.

Optimism means more than just “the glass is half full.”

To understand what optimism is, it is important to understand what optimism is not. Optimism doesn’t mean smiling when you’re unhappy, always seeing the bright side in an annoying cheery way, being the first person to drink the kool-aid, or just not admitting to the problems in front of you.

The difference between optimism and cynicism is simple: how do you view the universe? Is the universe a place that is inherently good and that you are meant to be in harmony with? This is an optimistic view. Do you believe the world is out to get you, or that it is something you have to defend yourself from? This is cynicism at its core.

Being an optimist does not make you fake, and cynicism doesn’t make you smart. In fact, a cynical outlook is one of the most foolish ways to make decisions in business and in life.

The impact of optimism

Shawn Achor, an expert on Positive Psychology and a TEDTalk sensation (definitely worth watching), has done research that shows that an optimistic outlook (he uses the word “positive”) trumps every other talent when it comes to business results. He says that, “Your brain at positive performs significantly better than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed…[and] every single business outcome improves.” And he has the stats to back that up.

The impact of an optimistic person gets even more powerful in a team environment. If the nature of optimism is harmony with the universe, it is natural that harmony within a team will follow. Project Aristotle, an initiative at Google that made an exhaustive study of what made effective teams, determined that “psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”

A dramatic photo of my personal journals.

I have been not only a witness to both of these cases, but have seen optimism have a significant impact on my own life. The importance of being smart and not letting the world bring you down were stressed in my early life and career, and in my late 20s I found myself quitting a job I had been miserable at for four years, ending a long-term relationship that I had been in even longer, and supporting a family member undergoing cancer treatment. As I struggled to bring direction to my life a friend challenged me to write down three things I was thankful for every day for a month. I scowled a little bit, but figured I had nothing to lose.

It changed my life.

At the time I didn’t know that daily journaling of three gratitudes was a strategy employed by people like Achor to help people learn optimism — he calls it a “happiness advantage.” And it did make me happier. I found a new job after looking for a week. I started getting more dates. I learned to sail a yacht. Life wasn’t suddenly perfect— I didn’t win the lottery or any such nonsense. And I didn’t turn into a completely different person who was lying to or about myself. It was more like I found a part of myself that I hadn’t known was there, and once I did that I found that the world around me was a good place to be.

Building an optimistic team

Optimism changed my life. But whether you choose harmony or antagonism with the universe is a choice everyone has to make for themselves. You might not be able to help an existing teammate find a better attitude, but you can be careful about who you hire. So, next time you’re interviewing a potential team member you might want to consider that candidate’s optimism. It’s worth asking yourself whether they embody the kind of optimism that will bring harmony to your team, or are full of cynicism that you should be wary of.

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