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Up with Reality, Down with Pessimism -- The Realist's Case for Optimism

God bless the realists, the folks who tell it like it is—who call a spade a spade, who never stick their head in the sand, and who know they aren’t doing anyone any favors in varnishing the truth. The Barbershop Harmony Society needs all the reality it can get. If the preceding words describe you, this post isn’t directed at you.

On second thought, this post may be ESPECIALLY for you.

What I say next will probably brand me as a blind Pollyanna skipping to the precipice, but oh well:


Realism is vital, but it is severely overrated. If that last sentence made you cringe, I'll point out that science is on my side for this one.

It turns out, a large portion of self-described realists are also pessimists. And because they are pessimists, they will not have access to the thoughts and actions that will lead their chapters and our Society to better days. Want proof? Want examples? Keep reading.

The Science of Optimism and Pessimism

Martin Seligman is no pop psychologist or motivational speaker. His peers consider him one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th Century. He’s dedicated his professional life primarily to the study of optimism and pessimism, and he is the pioneer of the scientific theory of learned helplessness. (Remember the term "learned helplessness," because it's the close cousin of pessimism and it's one of the primary reasons optimists out-perform pessimists by orders of magnitude.)

In his book "Learned Optimism," Seligman says what makes you either an optimist or a pessimist comes down to how you explain and react to typical failures. What do you tell yourself when you try something and it doesn't succeed? Say, a guest night that leads to no new members:

Pessimists tend to look inward to explain a failure: "What's wrong with us that this could happen? Hardly anybody we invited came--they must have a low opinion of barbershop harmony. The few who came didn't join. They must have seen something that turned them off. I bet it's the music we're singing ..."

Pessimists think they're always being realistic, that they're just taking responsibility for their problems. That might actually be the case, and their assessments of "what needs fixing" might actually be spot on. On the whole, Seligman says the pessimists are actually better grounded in reality than optimists. That's where the advantages end.

Pessimists are unrealistic in a most self-defeating way. They err on the side of viewing every failure as something that was under their control, whether or not that's the case. Because every failure appears to be their fault, they don't bounce back easily. They're certain they won't succeed until they fix "the problem," which they are certain is within themselves. No wonder pessimists are chronic underperformers. Because they're looking inward at what needs "fixing," they fail to see, let alone seize, opportunities that are REALISTICALLY within their grasp.

Optimists tend to look outward to explain a failure: "A lot of people we invited had commitments that night. We'll have better luck on our next guest night -- the sooner the better, so we can strike while the iron is still hot. On the bright side, all our members who didn't invite anyone saw that the few guests who did come had a great time. Too bad these guests' lives are too busy to join us right now. We'll have to keep in touch with them so that once their lives calm down, they'll remember us and how much fun they had."

Seligman says optimists almost always outperform pessimists when all other factors are equal--and factors don't stay equal, because optimists tend to create new factors. It's not that optimists think everything they do is perfect, that nothing needs fixing. They just assume that the source of typical failures are just as likely to be something outside of their control, and the fact is they're often right. Because they see the source of typical failures as "out there," because they don't take each failure personally, they bounce back quickly. Instead, they stay "out there" looking for more solutions, and they keep plugging away until they find what works.

What if the optimist is not right, that the source of a given failure really is something about him that needs fixing? There's the rub: Seligman says rose-colored-glasses optimists still greatly outperform the reality-based inward-lookers, and not by just a little. The bouncing back, sticking to it of an optimist simply gets far better results that the so-called "realism" near the core of a pessimist's learned helplessness.

A sunny optimist's explanations for a failure might turn out to be more accurate than the pessimist's explanations. And if not, the optimist's explanations still yield far more success.

Not Pop Psychology

Think this is "positive thinking" psycho-babble? Seligman got VERY rich by applying his research findings in the real world, as a consultant to NBA teams. If a team couldn't decide between two equally skilled draft picks, Seligman could tip the scales by showing which man was psychologically most ready to bounce back from losses, to thrive under NBA pressure. Teams weren't taking a leap of faith in hiring Seligman; for years, he'd predicted with better than 80% accuracy whether a team would win its next game following a loss. All the research he had to do was read the morning newspaper.

If the game quotes from the losing coaches and star players were inward-looking, i.e., pessimistic ("We need to work harder on our perimeter defense," "Our guys need to pass more and get more high-percentage shots"), they would usually lose the next game. Didn't matter whether their assessment was accurate. If their quotes explained the failure as something outside their control ("It's hard to beat a team that makes that many three-pointers," "The shots just weren't falling for me tonight") they would usually win. Didn't matter who they were playing. The optimists trusted themselves more, were more motivated because they believed their strengths would win the day next time.

(An aside: Seligman was also able to predict every U.S. presidential race winner for decades based on assessing the optimism of each candidate's rhetoric. There was more science to this than I can go into here, but the more optimistic ones always drew more votes.)

Proof That Optimism Works in Chapters

To all you realistic folks out there who know exactly why our Society is shrinking, who can identify to the Nth detail everything we do wrong as a Society, everything that needs fixing, how can I be more plain? I love that you care so much. Many of you have given more to the Society than most of us. We love you, we're okay with your pointing out problems. BUT YOUR PESSIMISTIC OUTLOOK IS THE SOCIETY'S BIGGEST PROBLEM OF ALL. Your motives may be pure, and some of your facts are persuasive. But you aren't helping. Your gloom and doom is teaching those of us who listen to you to feel and act helpless. Pessimism is self-fulfilling prophecy. Please stop the negativity and lead the way with outward-looking solutions.

To all you folks out there who want the Society to start on a path to growth but aren't sure what that path is, know this: Optimism isn't sticking your head in the sand. It isn't "ignorance is bliss." It's just the only way that works.

Last week, I interviewed the long-time director of a chorus that was down to 12 guys just a year ago. Today, they're at 38 members with no end in sight. I won't give away the whole story (it'll be on the January issue cover), but it was a fascinating interview. I kept pressing him about what was the catalyst, at what point did they go from "should we fold?" to "Will we have 60 members in 2010?" He had to give that some thought. Chapter members agreed that a newish member inspired by a COTS weekend was a big part of it. On reflection, this director said the key turning point actually came a couple of months later.

Without giving too much away, I'll summarize: An enthusiastic new member joined and soon started bringing friends. The chapter mindset changed. "We kind of went from thinking very small--let's see if we can find a new member--to a new guest every week, and expecting growth," this director told me. This new member helped them realize they had something great to offer, and at that point they stopped talking about what was wrong with the chapter. They saw that they had something other men wanted, so they finally started to act like it.

They stopped singing in rest homes and started planning a concert. They upgraded their repertoire. They called back the guys who for years had said they didn't have time for singing and learned that some now did. Enthusiasm built. Dropped members returned, all these enthusiastic new members started bringing others. Acting like optimists, that they had something good and that others would agree, made all the difference in the world.

Guys, we're the BARBERSHOP HARMONY SOCIETY. Our music is awesome, our fellowship is unbeatable. Audiences love our performances. The rest of the a cappella world would kill to have the numbers and resources we have. If you need something to "fix" in your chapter, fix the negativity. Get rid of the small thinking. Men will want to join your chapter if we offer them a good musical experience along with sincere friendship and infectious enthusiasm.

Men in your community want what you already have in your chapter. They'll join once you start acting like you believe it!