The Power of Optimism
Sometime in the middle of last year, I was lying awake, angry and frustrated about an exchange I had had with an old friend. It left me feeling judged, upset, and too furious to sleep. I was mapping out all of the possible responses in my head. But I’d been here before. Caught in the open, not quite sure what I believed; cornered, unsafe. I knew this place, this place of aggression and 'me vs them'; this place of shortness of breath and lack of sleep. And it wasn't where I wanted to be. It wasn't pleasant. So I turned my bedside light on - 'I can't think my way out of this' - and my eyes landed on one of the books next to my bed. It was The Art of Possibility by Ben and Ros Zander. I thought, 'That's an amazing book. There must be something in there that can help me.' And there was. My frustration dissipated, my breathing deepened, and sleep came. That was the first time that I saw so clearly and personally how the practice of possibility can change the way you feel in your own body. There is an opposite to contraction, to being triggered by someone, and it is possibility. And it's in your power. You can choose to step out of it. You can choose to get to sleep.
Even before that night, I was on my way to a worldview based in optimism and possibility. It started in earnest with Matt Ridley's amazing book The Rational Optimist, which showed me that there is a way to look at the modern world and feel a sense of hope and optimism. In the three or four years since I read that book, and when combined with the Zanders' masterpiece, that worldview has become my outlook of choice: on my life, my work, my relationships and the world at large.
This is the apocryphal 'can-do' attitude. It's the post-industrial mindset that renowned author and entrepeneur Seth Godin - one of the fathers of internet marketing, writer of one of the most popular blogs online, and a continually inspirational writer and speaker - is trying to unlock in all of us. It's the Zanders' universe of possibility: full of reinvented assumptions, people who deserve 'A's, and Rule Number Six (which, for those who haven't read the book, is 'Don't take yourself so god damn seriously').
It's not that I didn't possess these qualities before I encountered Ridley and the Zanders, it's that I wasn't aware of the power of them. And that meant I couldn't use them. Really getting to grips with possibility and optimism means all sorts of things, but perhaps the most surprising is from the story of that night: how a sense of possibility has the power to break up and release my frustration, and particularly the contractions I sometimes feel when I am triggered by someone else. Another is how it can remove the fear of sharing and speaking about the things that really matter to me. Including, of course, my work.
By using these practices, and this worldview, I am able to approach far larger parts of my life with a sense of excitement, and far more people with a sense of love.
Possibility and Changing Your Life
This sense of excitement is so important when people are thinking of making a big change in their life. How many ideas are broken on the rocks of a sense of limitation or pessimism? A friend of mine recently told me that of all the people he'd told about his move abroad, I was the only one who seemed genuinely excited. Others were confused about the city he was moving to, or the timing, or what it was really about. They meant well, of course, and loved him greatly, but how did their scepticism or worry help him at this exciting but challenging moment in his life? You may be able to make the changes in your life without someone to help you see the possibility and optimism, but having someone like that definitely helps.
One of the most astounding things for me in my work as a coach has been how quickly that mindset of limitation and lack can be replaced by one of openness and possibility. It happens in different ways.
“I've never really failed,” said one client, about an hour into our first session together.
"You've never really failed.” Reflection is one of the simplest and most powerful coaching tools, one which never ceases to amaze me. And as I said that, I knew something was about to happen.
“Not at anything that I really wanted.”
“You've never failed at anything that you really wanted.”
There was a look of surprise on her face. She couldn't work out if I had said it first or if she had (“You did. All from you.”) But it was more than surprise. We looked at each other. We knew something special had happened. A lightbulb moment. There was suddenly possibility in the air.
That was our first and our last session. Once that magical moment had happened, something had been unlocked for this woman. An award nomination for her blog followed; busyness from the invitations that came with it. She has recently started retraining, a course that we discussed in that session. That moment showed her that everything was within her grasp if she really wanted it. Wow. What possibility. What power she suddenly possessed.
I have seen this with other clients, too, as our coaching pushes them to see things in different ways, and opens up possibilities that they hadn't allowed themselves to truly see. Sometimes, a session focusing on one area of their life – even one which seemed impossibly stuck or complex at the start of the session, like preparing for a conversation with an difficult colleague, or the idea that the relationship they want is unreachable – opens up that area so completely that they barely mention it the next time we meet, so completely is the pressure dissipated and the power back in their hands.
Why Everyone Needs a Coach
This is why my work is so important to me. Gallup recently wrote about why everybody needs a coach. For them, if everyone spent just one hour a year focusing on their strengths, the changes to the world could be extraordinary. For me, it's about something different. What if everyone could see the possibilities that are open to them? What if they understood the unique contribution that only they can make? And what if they understood that they have all they need to make it happen? I believe that reawakening this sense of excitement and possibility is the route to solving so many of the modern world's problems.
Because there isn't a fixed amount of hope in the world. It isn't limited. It isn't a fixed pie that is only available to you if you're a great mystic or some special type of person. It's within your grasp. And one route to more hope is the excitement available to you when you look on things with possibility, the love available to you if you look on the world with optimism.
This is one of the great challenges of our time: to help more people in the world view their life with a sense of possibility, and understand that they have the agency to make happen whatever it is that they really want. That's what my work is about. It's about giving that gift, as often as I can – to my friends before they move to another continent, to my clients when they don't see their inner strength, to people I speak to at a workshop, to a friend-of-a-friend at a party. To myself, when I can't sleep through frustration and contraction. And to you, too, in whatever part of your life you may need a little more possibility, a little more optimism, a little more hope. You can do it.
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn, published in August 2016.