How to lead with optimism through uncertain times

Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertaintyJacob Bronowski.

How can you lead with optimism given these difficult times?

The legacy of global financial mismanagement and the unresolved European debt crisis mean phrases like ‘economic collapse’ are brandished about, clubbing into us the fear (or reality) of job cuts, foreclosures and other terrors.

Last year there were race riots in Britain, apocalyptic floods in Brazil and Thailand and in Tunisia a fruit seller set himself and the Arab world alight when his protest spurred the dismantling of dictatorships in Tunisia, Jordon, Egypt and Libya.

As I write the ever-ticking worldometer tells me there have been 100 million births and 43 million deaths since the new year stared and in the last 24 hours writers published over 3 million blogs, a statistic that will be outdated by the time you read this.

With such interminable disruption and the accelerating speed at which we know about it, it’s no wonder many of us feel afraid or at the very least, anxious.

But let’s stop a moment and reflect.

2010 – that was a year of spending cuts, ash clouds, oil spills and WikiLeaks.

And thinking back 20 years, I recall the solemn announcement that the Gulf War had broken out, a response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. If I am not mistaken, the same year the US took on Panama.

From then on memory gives way to Google but I have it on authority that in 1970 Biafra surrendered after a 32 month fight for independence from Nigeria and 50 000 people were killed in an earthquake in Peru. And so I scroll backwards, year on year.

I am not trying to depress you. On the contrary, what I am aiming for is perspective.

There has never been a time in history where the world was either stable or safe. Conflict, economic seesaws, progressive and regressive social and environmental events are the boilerplate of our histories.

And yet I would put money on you having experienced the full gamut of emotions during your lifetime – including happiness.

Why, despite the ever-and-never changing state of the world, do our feelings change and how can we use this understanding to make optimism our default perspective?

It’s important to understand that while environment has an impact; meaning is something that results from the way that we perceive and process external events. We cannot control the what, the where or the when. But we can curate a self that maximizes our ability to cope with it.

In his must-see presentation on optical illusions, Beau Lotto proves that when we look at the same colour in different contexts, we see it differently. The sensory inputs remain the same but the way our brain interprets light is circumstantial. The dramatic outtake of this is that the inherent lack of meaning in information is not just true in the sensory world but applies in general.

We think that by knowing a person’s background or education, what they earn or own, we can predict how happy they will be.

But this is not the case.

Harvard professor Shawn Achor shows that knowing someone’s external circumstances predicts as little as 10 per cent of their long-term happiness. That means 90 per cent of our happiness is determined by how we choose to interpret our world.

I don’t say this in a way that denies how tough things are for people or suggest for one moment that upbringing doesn’t confer privilege. But it’s a relief to know that we can influence how we feel in the present and that this dominoes into our future.

For example, say you believe you will only be happy when you ‘succeed’. Well, you’ll never get there because as soon as you achieve a goal, you shift the post, making happiness an elusive state, always one more accomplishment beyond your reach.

Astor says our brains work in the opposite away. By being authentically positive, we create what is called a ‘happiness advantage’ (not the same as happiness) that increases our intelligence and creativity in measurable ways. Our brains are also 31 per cent more productive – allowing us to synthesize and respond to conditions constructively.

I was astounded to learn in Astor’s presentation that focusing on gratitude for as little as 2 minutes, 21 days in a row can help rewire the brain. He also suggests journaling, exercise and kindness, practices I have been teaching for the last 15 years.

How do these simple tasks work?

Writing down what you are grateful for teaches you to scan for the positives in your environment first, re-patterning the brain. This is crucial given the volume of information we are exposed to and which, given media bias, tends to the dramatic and negative.

Exercise teaches us the relationship between action and outcome; journaling frees us from the energy-sapping static of our repetitive thoughts but also reinforces good experiences.

As for kindness, as most world religions recognize, focusing on others gives us a sense of purpose and frees us from the limitations of a narrow self.

So yes, optimism is possible in uncertain times:

  1. First accept things as they are – this does not mean resigning yourself to circumstance but recognizing that seeing clearly is the springboard for creating change.
  2. Remember that meaning is not fixed but created – think about what you will make of your cues.
  3. And train your brain for optimism and resilience by dedicating a small amount of time each day to gratitude, exercise, journaling and being kind.

Oh and by the way, last year physicists discovered that ghost particles break the cosmic speed limit and kids found cures to diseases that had stumped scientists by gaming online – a far cry from the unknowable consequences of the first web page created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, the year that Nelson Mandela was freed.

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