The case for optimism

It’s a weekend, you are a relaxing with friends contemplating what to do for the afternoon, tossing up options. One of the group suggests that you try and sneak into something illustrious, the best ticket in town to see a famous person or event….what is that event for you? Picture it in your mind. The chances of success are small but the payoff is huge.

Now imagine one friend says, “We aren’t going to get through there, not a chance in hell, let’s not try”.

And the other, “It will be fine, confidence is key, come on let’s try”.

Which friend is more enjoyable to be around? Who would you rather spend time with?

This scenario manifests itself in many different contexts and variations in our daily lives, both professional and private, and provides an invaluable insight into human behaviour. The overconfident, cockeyed friend blindly sending the group into an uncertain situation cannot speak to the probability of success, he does not know, cannot know and presumably does not care. The key insight is the level of downside in each outcome.

Consider the 3 scenarios:

Do not try: enough said.

Try and succeed: your confident, adventurous friend is a visionary and has just made your day.

Try and failure: your confident, adventurous friend is just that and energising company.

This simplistic analogy serves a valid purpose to highlight the social value of experimentation and adventure, without external motivation, true potential will not be achieved; coaches and managers have fulfilled this role for centuries. Setting unrealistic, bold and ambitious goals can drive and expand human capacity to unimaginable levels. Peter Diamandis, founder of X-Prize, in his second book BOLD (a high recommended read) talks about the power of talking and thinking BIG and its ability to influence behaviour, albeit on a different scale.

Will Elon Musk’s credibility dilute if humans don’t get to land on Mars until 2029, not 2026?

Boeing CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, this week announced that the first human expedition to Mars will be on a Boeing jet — will his credibility suffer if they are second?

The answer is, of course, no. They are playing at the same game.

These visionary leaders are all too aware that these predictions and commitments are nothing more than bold statements designed to grab publicity and position themselves and their companies as modern, forward thinking companies — there is minimal to no downside. There is no downside to such claims as long as the idea is bold enough, is believable and the timescale will evade accountability. A near miss would still be a phenomenal achievement and they will be applauded for it — if they are still around.

Will Elon Musk’s credibility be damaged if Tesla misses the Model 3 release date and performance targets? Absolutely.

We are drawn to optimistic, energetic and ambitious personalities in all aspects of our lives. Overconfidence can be highly dangerous in both business and private life, inaccurate forecasts, cash flow or risk management can prove fatal and the balance is an art form. The 2008 banking crisis is the obvious example. This is not an endorsement to shoot blindly into anything and recent literature highlighting the benefits of introverted, risk averse CEOs provides welcomed balance to the corporate leadership debate. But next time you are consulted on something large or small; consider which friend you want to be and what is the downside, if any, of taking a chance. Sometimes errors of judgement come for free.