Feel the doom and do it anyway (or how to stay hopeful in an age of uncertainty)

We are trying to adopt a culture of real-time, personal feedback at work to help us learn about our impact on others. A recurring theme for me is about my perceived positivity — both in general and about large scale change. The vast majority of those who experience my way of being as positive say they find it motivating, inspiring and energising. A few others have cautioned that those who are feeling more ‘negatively’ towards change, or the organisation in general, might feel irritated or alienated by an overtly positive demeanour. This insight has given me much food for thought and I’d like to offer a few reflections in the hope of taking us beyond dualistic notions of ‘positivity’ and ‘negativity’ as well as expanding the context beyond organisations to the global change of age we are living through.

Varieties of Hope

When receiving feedback about my positivity, I noticed that regardless of whether it was directed as a compliment or critique, I had a feeling of being somewhat misunderstood along with a concern that I was being seen as some enthusiastic cheerleader type naturally attuned to seeing only the good and joyful. Without a more nuanced understanding, we can easily fall into the trap of seeing positivity this way. I prefer to think in terms of hopefulness rather than positivity, but even that term needs some elucidation. A few things I have read recently have helped me to distinguish between several varieties of hope:

  1. Pollyanna hope — a sort of naïve and passive optimism that blindly believes that everything will turn out for the best and encourages others to adopt a positive stance regardless of obstacles, contradictions and tensions. In an unhealthy manifestation, this type of hope can lead to blindspots and denial (as well as just really annoying people!)
  2. Heroic hope — Stoknes (2015) describes this as being a much more active form of hope. With heroic hope, we focus on human potential to creatively solve any problems we face. Whilst it is easy to criticise Pollyanna type hope, heroic hope is deceptively appealing. In fact, my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are littered with popular articles designed to tap into heroic hope. In a healthy form, heroic hope harnesses the best of what we can do together and as individuals. In an unhealthy form, heroic hope creates evangelists of this or that model as ‘the thing’ that will save us from crisis and any critique is silenced. Cult like followings of, say, service design or collaborative approaches emerge (disclaimer: I am passionate about both but still find the lack of internal reflexivity disconcerting).
  3. Generative Hope In their recent article on Appreciative Inquiry, Sharp et al (2017) describe generativity as, ‘the processes and capacities that can help people see old things in new ways’ (p.7). They go on to describe how a generative but appreciative stance can involve engagement with complex realities and the ‘shadow side’ of human consciousness. In doing so, authentic connections and new relationships to ideas, issues and people form and can generate change. Appreciation of our day-to-day, lived experiences is not tied to only that which is deemed to be ‘positive’. It is also not attached (unlike the Pollyanna and Heroic types of hope) to a belief in the certainty of a particular utopia or desired outcome. In that sense, it can also be described as ‘grounded’ (Stoknes, 2015).

Generative Hope in an Age of Uncertainty

There appears to be an increasing sense of living through a great change of age. Whilst some see this as a time of flourishing (e.g. Goldin & Kurtana 2017), many thinkers believe we are at a tipping point as we witness both great technological and communicative advances at the same time as facing global challenges such as migration, climate change, depletion of natural resources, peak-oil and terrorism. Amongst these thinkers, a common view is that we will experience a significant degree of extreme societal, political and environmental breakdown before we can (if we can) breakthrough. What role does a hopeful stance play in the face of such uncertainty and risk? A Pollyanna form of hope would perhaps stick its fingers in its ears and ignore dire warnings of societal collapse in favour of celebrating warmer UK summers! A heroic hope might assume we can avoid going through the abyss by way of our human inventiveness and clever models, blueprints and strategies for change — a ‘save the world’ sort of activism but often without a deep, radical shift in consciousness. A generative hope, however, is less ego-driven (after-all, what could be more ego-driven than wanting to save the world!?). A generative hopeful stance is a more humble way of relating to an uncertain future. It accepts the darker possibilities as well as the optimistic and yet feels compelled to act anyway, regardless of the outcome. Hence the title of this article (a play on the famous self help book by Susan Jeffers). In fact, it might be precisely because we will profoundly breakdown that we need those with generative hope at the time to help us rebuild. When writing about revolutions in his new book ‘How Soon is Now?’, Daniel Pinchbeck suggests that when global crisis occurs, the actions that are taken to rebuild society depend on the ideas lying around at the time. He concludes from this that our purpose is not to save the world from crisis but to develop alternatives to existing approaches and keep them alive and available until the impossible becomes the inevitable once crisis has occurred. This insight really landed with me and has dramatically shifted my sense of purpose in what I do.

I think it was Mahatma Gandhi that said, ‘whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it’. It is in this spirit that generative hope lives. To act in service of the best possible emerging future without attachment to belief in outcome or glory in contribution. For me, generative hope entails an intentioned openness to possibilities.

As Sterling (2003) puts it, ‘in our times of which are at once scaring and exciting, it perhaps is best to remain neither a hopeless pessimist or an unrealistic optimist, but a ‘possibilist’ (p.358).

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