3 signs you have an optimism gap

When newly minted Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau failed to meet his campaign promise to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada in two months, immigration lawyers, resettlement experts and aid workers were not surprised. With their feet firmly planted in the day-to-day reality of refugee resettlement, they knew that no one, no matter how well-intentioned or well-resourced, could conduct the background checks, verify identification, mobilize transportation and housing and myriad other requirements in such a short time. As a result, some journalists accused Trudeau of suffering from an “optimism gap”.

An optimism gap is a cognitive bias that causes a person to believe that they are less at risk of experiencing a negative outcome compared to others. It’s why gamblers believe they can beat the odds. It’s why smokers believe lung cancer will only happen to other people. In the workplace, it makes people believe they can succeed where others have failed.

There’s nothing wrong with optimism but when it becomes blind optimism in your ability to accomplish something in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it is a huge time waster that causes hours of unnecessary stress, debate and additional work for the people you have looped into your plan.

Here are three signs you might be suffering from an optimism gap:

  1. You refuse to listen to experts – When Trudeau admitted he couldn’t fulfill his promise to resettle 25,000 refugees in two months, he said his government hadn’t realized how difficult it would be. This is not true. He had the benefit of counsel from immigration experts inside and outside the public sector and he would most definitely have been advised against making a promise he couldn’t keep. Nothing is more infuriating than when someone disregards expert advice and then, when a project fails, claims they weren’t aware of the risks going in.
  1. You think you can do what no one else has been able to do – When we’re new to a situation, whether it’s a job or volunteer role, the problems are easy to see and for a while, the solutions seem easy as well. And in a rare case, you might have a solution that no one else has thought of before but often, you’re just going over the same worn out path. Blind optimists say things like:

“The five people who had this job before me burned out? It won’t happen to me.”

“That person is so lazy that no one can motivate them? I’ll find a way to bring out the best in them.”

“They don’t believe in planning ahead? I’m sure once I explain things to them in a logical manner, they will see the light.”

The issue is not the optimism. It’s that the optimism is based on a belief that your charm, experience or credentials can undo what are usually systemic, deep-seated, years-in-the-making roadblocks to success.

  1. You believe that optimism will make people feel better or work harder – Some people think that a rah rah attitude is all it takes to achieve the impossible but it’s unrealistic to expect that of the people who actually have to execute your grand vision. Most people prefer their optimism with a dose of reality so it’s clear what they’re up against. So, when you’re trying to rally the troops, saying, “I realize morale has been low for a long time but bit by bit we’re going to raise the bar” works a lot better than, “I don’t care if this hasn’t worked before. I need you to be excited about my plans.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the optimism gap. History, books and movies are chockfull of heroes who have realized a crazy dream through sheer determination. Think Rocky, Field of Dreams, Forrest Gump and any number of football-themed movies where the underdog made a Hail Mary pass in the final 30 seconds. We don’t often hear about, or celebrate, the other 99.9 percent that were stopped in their tracks by harsh, cold reality.

So what do you think? How much optimism is too much?

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