One of the first things I ever worked with a coach on was my tendency towards a cynical worldview.  I had for years justified to myself that I was being a realist in my cynicism.  Somehow, in talking to my coach one day, I realized that my cynicism was holding me back and leading me to immediately dismiss positive ideas for change by telling myself that “it won’t make a difference.”  When I realized that about myself, I didn’t immediately know how to change it, I just knew that I wanted to be more optimistic even though I couldn’t articulate why.

A big barrier to optimism for me was that I associated it with a sort of Pollyannaish naïveté (before I realized that the story of Pollyanna includes plenty of suffering, too).  My coach challenged me to ask myself if I really believed that optimism always equated with naïveté, did I truly think there was no cause for optimism, and did I actually live my own life without optimism?  What I discovered is that I regularly make choices from a place of optimism and that I appreciate and respect seeing others do the same.  The barrier I had to embracing optimism was only in my mind, a mental construct, something I told myself was true, such as “it won’t make a difference.”  Once I realized I could actually stop telling myself that, I decided I needed a new term that wouldn’t be associated with my conditioned thinking.  What I came up with was “authentic optimism,” a kind of optimism that is rooted in experience, which understands that there is much suffering in the world and that there is simultaneously still cause for hope.  In other words, realism and optimism were no longer mutually exclusive in my mind.

I was just reminded of this coaching work I had done around authentic optimism when reading an essay by the late historian Howard Zinn entitled “The Optimism of Uncertainty.”   In a preface to the essay, he wrote:

The word ‘optimism’ used here, makes me a little uneasy, because it suggests a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time.  But I use it anyway, not because I am totally confident that the world will get better, but because I am certain that only such confidence can prevent people from giving up the game before all the cards have been played.  The metaphor is deliberate; it is a gamble.  Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning.   To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.

I invite you to consider your own habitual thought patterns in regards to cynicism and optimism.  Is there room to reconsider, room to change, room to grow?  What does authentic optimism mean to you?