The Power of Intelligent Optimism

Despite a demanding professional schedule, a friend of mine volunteers to work with prisoners. He has a surprisingly high rate of success in helping them turn their lives around.  How does he achieve this? His strategy is straightforward. He sees the potential in everyone. He listens deeply and responds authentically. He has no agenda other than to help. Recently he sent me a story that included a penetrating question.

Your deep commitment to seeing the good in all things prompted me to engage one of my inmates to talk about the spirit of positive organizational scholarship. Given where he had come from and where he had spent most of his teen and adult life, I was surprised to see the 24-year-old deeply engaged and curious about a life outlook that was very alien to him. His upbringing was pockmarked with a series of abuses by his family and “friends,” who saw him as someone to be manipulated and marginalized. After sharing the concept of POS and its effects, he startled me with a simple, yet penetrating question: “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”

“How would you have responded to him?” my friend asked me. This question is a much more efficient and elegant version of a criticism often leveled at the positive perspective. It suggests that to take a positive view is to ignore or distort reality. It is common to denigrate the positive perspective by saying, “Oh, that’s Pollyanna.”

This expression refers to the iconic 1913 novel of the same name in which a girl embraces the silver lining no matter what challenges she encounters. This bestseller inspired movie versions in 1920 and 1960.

After hearing that critical expression so many times I decided to watch the 1960 Disney version. I wanted to examine Pollyanna’s lack of realism so I could use it to distinguish between her unrealistic perspective and the practical positive perspective about which I teach and research. I had a surprise.

It turns out there was nothing unrealistic about Pollyanna. Like the above prisoner she had one disappointing experience after another.  She felt the reality and the pain of each disappointment. In the midst of her disappointment she made the choice to orient to hope. This did not make the negative realities go away but it changed her life trajectory.

When confronted with a difficulty, most of us choose either a self-defeating action (impulsive behavior, or an inappropriate fight response) or inaction (avoidance, or an inappropriate flight response). Pollyanna had the ability to self-regulate, to manage her own emotional reactions. Instead of becoming disabled by her life injuries, she acquired resilience–the ability to move forward in the face of constraint.

Now back to the inmate’s question. “How can I trust you when all you see is the good?”

If all I see is the good you are right, you should not trust me. I am a naive optimist who distorts reality. I am simply the flip side of the negative skeptic who also distorts reality.

On the other hand, if we see and experience the negative but discipline ourselves to live in positivity we grow into an unusual and mature life stance. We become intelligent optimists. This is a characteristic of master change agents.

In the Pollyanna movie, there is a confirmed cynic. We might assume she grew up being treated as the above prisoner was treated. In this character’s normal, skeptical independence, she is repulsed by Pollyanna’s positive orientation. Then circumstances change and she needs to lean on someone. When she has to choose, it is Pollyanna she selects.

A critic might say, “Yes, but that was just a movie.” Think about my friend. Why does he, working for free, succeed in turning around prisoners when so many professionals fail? He sees the potential in everyone. He listens deeply and responds authentically. He has no agenda other than to help.   He is an intelligent optimist who sees and nurtures the potential in everyone.


Who do I know who is a naive optimist, how do I feel about the person?

Who do I know who is an intelligent optimist, how do I feel about the person?

How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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