A lot of self-help books and motivational speakers have a simple message when it comes to optimism – if you believe in yourself, then you will achieve success. But there is one problem with this little mantra, according to psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson – it’s not true.
The focus on achieving success almost effortlessly, if only you have the proper mindset, is more than false, it can be downright harmful. It can itself lead to failure.
Halvorson is not arguing against optimism. It is true, she says, that those who are successful are precisely the people who believe they will be successful. Many experiments have proven so.
What Halvorson takes issue with is the idea that success, if only we believe, will come easily, that it won’t require much effort. It’s the difference between being realistic and being naive.
Those who are optimists, but also know the reality of life, know that they are responsible for making success happen. (As basketball coach John Wooden put it, “If you don’t work, nothing else will.”) They know that success only will come with careful planning, sustained effort, tenacity, and overcoming obstacles. Realistic optimists know they have to prepare and work, and this work is self-reinforcing – it only gives them more confidence in their ultimate success.
But people who are unrealistic believe that all it takes is the right attitude – if you believe, it will happen, somehow magically. They don’t believe it must be self-generated, but that optimism is enough to bring it from some external source.
Those who are realistic know that achieving success won’t be any walk in the park. It will be tough, it will require overcoming obstacles, it will require sacrifice and effort. Realistic optimists put in more effort, plan for how they will deal with obstacles before they come up, and persist longer in the face of adversity.
Those who are unrealistic see thoughts about difficulty and problems merely as negative thinking, something to be avoided, rather than something to embrace and contend with. They focus only on what they want, and do not consider anything else.
Yes, you need to have a positive attitude, but you also need to have a realistic perspective on adversity. As Halvorson says, don’t just visualize success, visualize the steps you are going to take to be successful.