Thinking About Your Career This Summer? Optimists Should Read This.


Most lawyers are very practical and proactive; and yet business development and job searching are areas that may seem to depend on fate.  For example, a lawyer who is trying to develop a practice may do extensive speaking and writing, but then his biggest client comes from a child’s birthday party.  Another attorney may have been looking for a new position for years and tried every approach in the book, but to no avail.  Thus, it is not surprising that some people’s minds turn to positive thinking, often as a remedy for the pessimism that tends to rear its head in such circumstances. 

Everyone has heard that optimism reduces stress, increases resilience, boosts productivity, and enhances happiness. Therefore, it is very common for people to see optimism as good and pessimism as bad.  However, the reality is far more complex. It is important to understand the subtleties because you or someone you know could inadvertently be undermining the likelihood of achieving goals through the “wrong” form of positive thinking.

According to research, optimism absolutely does help people achieve success.  So, what is the problem?  The issue is how we define the terms.  Colloquially, and even sometimes in the research, people conflate optimism with positive thinking in general; and yet there are important distinctions. Optimism, in the constructive sense, advocated by the positive psychology movement, is based on rational interpretations of the past that tend to be supportive of future success.  The other form of positive thinking, which for the sake of clarity, we will call fantasies because they more divorced from reality, actually hinders people from taking constructive action. 

What does this mean in concrete terms?  If one wants to become great at business development, for example, and has not, thus far, been particularly successful in that area, it is still possible to find a rational basis for optimism.  A person could look at her excellent interpersonal skills, attention to detail, or other talents that would be helpful in pursuit of that goal.  She could also identify times in her life when she persevered to overcome obstacles or learn new skills.  When one’s positive beliefs about the future are predicated on actual experiences and examples, that qualifies as optimism, and has a strong likelihood of leading to positive real-world results. On the other hand, simply fantasizing about success (even believing it will happen), without grounding it in past experience, though an enjoyable way to while away the time sitting by the pool, actually decreases the likelihood that the person will take action and accomplish his goal. 

Gabriele Oettingen, in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking, outlines numerous studies which found that fantasies hold people back from achieving their goals in a wide range of areas: weight loss, dating, finding a job, recovering from hip-replacement surgery, treating asthma, cancer and other diseases, studying for a business skills program, among others.  Discussing a weight loss study, Oettingen states,

Irrespective of their judgements based on past experiences, women who had strong positive fantasies about slimming down--the ones who most positively pictured themselves looking slender and attractive… lost 24 pounds less than those who pictured themselves more negatively.

For good measure, the researchers also analyzed politics and business. The more positive the reporting in the financial pages of newspapers, the more the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined in subsequent weeks and months. The more positive a president’s inaugural address, the worse the economy did during that his term in office. While we may be inclined to quibble over the methodology of one or another study, cumulatively, the research clearly indicates that positive thinking needs to be grounded in the real world for it to have a positive impact.

Although positive fantasies diminish the likelihood of taking constructive action, there are still two important situations in which they are beneficial.  The first is when the only thing you can do is sit tight and wait out a tough situation. Fantasies provide short term pleasure that can help people get out of bed in the morning, or continue to be present for a loved one who is ill, among other challenging situations.

The second circumstance in which fantasies are useful is when a person is trying to get clarity about what he or she really wants in order to make an important life choice.  When I ask lawyers what they want in their careers, most gravitate toward answers that seem manageable and practical.  While that is great for getting concrete results, it doesn’t allow for the freedom and expansiveness that enable people get to the core of their values and priorities.  Fantasies allow you to move outside the constrains of your actual life and get a new perspective and a deeper understanding of what will make you happy.  If you fantasize about never needing to work again, and living in solitude on your own gorgeous tropical island, the odds on you buying an island may be diminished but you may get really clear about how badly you want a slower pace of life -- which could be an important factor to consider if you were offered a job in Nebraska or New York City.

As you lie on the beach, hike through the mountains, or just having long lunches with friends, you may want to take note of whether your thoughts are grounded optimism, baseless fantasies or something else.  Each is useful and wonderful in its own way. However, just as refrigerators and puppies are both wonderful, life works much better when we don’t confuse the two.