Making the Case for Optimism

Last night, a friend who runs a boutique travel agency sent a survey. It stated, “We’ll get through this and get out traveling again. Answer where you want to go, we’ll survey the rest of your family and we’ll come back with a five-year family travel plan.” For the first time in weeks, I suspended the reality of lockdown, my skepticism that I’ll be out traveling anytime soon, how anyone could come up with a five year plan unless it started with “in the year after they find a vaccine,” whether we’d even have the money to travel, and just channeled my optimism and answered the questions.

My favorite question asked me to make a top ten bucket list with a few words as to why. The first few were easy as they were trips that were just cancelled or already in planning. Then I had to really think. India got added to the list (yoga, food), then Morocco (spice markets, mosaics, desert), Patagonia (beautiful nature, volunteering in the park), Belize (diving) and the Willy Clancy festival in Ireland (dance, beer, irish sweaters). Just thinking about someday getting back out to see the world, whether staying back in hostels or luxury digs, felt like the ultimate extravagance. It was the most delightful 30 minutes in weeks. If you are a traveler, I highly recommend making this list just for fun.

Then, today, I read a sobering piece about the various plans to reopen the economy being proposed on both sides written by the always insightful Ezra Klein from Vox. The subhead was “there is no plan to return to normal.” Whether the timeline was weeks or months or the method to get there was testing or tracing, it paints a pretty bleak picture for the economy to recover anytime soon, given the political leadership required for any of the solutions to be implemented prior to a vaccine or treatment.  Back to a more sobering view of reality.

I’ve come to see this balance between optimism and pessimism about the future as a critical one for leaders of all types, including parents, to navigate right now. The reality is that no one really knows how this plays out or when or what it looks like when it does. It’s tempting to be overly optimistic, assuming that the kids go back to school and businesses will reopen in three weeks. But it’s equally tempting to focus on the worst case and overlook the role that ingenuity, innovation and sheer collective willpower can play.

There has been significant research into the power of an abundance mentality. While a global pandemic and the resulting economic collapse are very powerful triggers for a scarcity mindset, leaders should be trying as hard as possible to also stay open to what is working, or could be, at this time. Understanding what they can afford, not just what they can’t. How best to use this time so when we come out of it, which we eventually will, we could even be stronger than we were going into it. Researcher Brenè Brown even discusses the importance of this mindset to parenting in her book, Daring Greatly.

I’ve told my team that we need to revise our 2020 plans for three options. I’m calling them “the stars align” plan, the “we muddle through” plan, and the “all hell breaks loose” plan. Arguably we need to do the same planning for Stevens, Inc. Our natural tendency as humans is to focus on the “all hell breaks loose” planning. We are wired to fear loss more than anticipate equivalent gain. But those other optimism focused plans are equally important.

What could we be doing now that would put us in a stronger position in a few months? Could an opportunity present itself that you might not have been able to take an advantage of previously? For example, some incredibly talented people are looking for work right now. Perhaps you are able to make one key hire that it would have been hard to do previously. On the personal front, when travel does resume, there are going to be some amazing offers. Maybe that bucket list trip you never could afford is now a possibility. If you are furloughed (and not parenting full-time like many are) perhaps you have time to take a class that could lead to advancement or a new role when your company can bring you back.

As hard as it is right now, don’t be afraid to imagine an optimistic scenario and what you can do to prepare for or lean into that scenario now. Make necessary difficult decisions, but stay focused on all the capabilities and resources you still have around you, not all that’s been lost. Think creatively about how to use what might be the greatest gift of time that we’ve ever had in our lifetimes. We will get through this. Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, the stars will align.

Quote of the Week:  Pessimists are usually right and optimists are usually wrong but all the great changes have been accomplished by optimists.

Thomas Friedman

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