How to Balance Optimism and Avoid Overshooting

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When my cousin Tonya and I were younger, we were crazy about Bobby Brown. We loved his music, his dance moves, his haircuts, absolutely everything to do with him. We loved Whitney Houston in her own right, of course, so we were even more enthusiastic at the thought that when we got older, we would all be married to Bobby (in a weird sister-wives kind of way that you can only conceive of with your best friend/cousin).

When a commercial announced that there was a hotline to speak with Bobby directly, our 9 and 8-year-old selves were, of course, ecstatic. We were finally going to get to talk to our dream guy, to tell him how much we loved his fade and how we were so looking forward to one day seeing him in person.

While at our grandparents’ house, we dialed the hotline to speak with Bobby. Of course, we never spoke to the actual Bobby Brown, but our youthful optimism and enthusiasm in making that contact was worth the discipline we received as a result of multiple long-distance charges on our grandmother’s phone bill.

Academic studies support the premise that children’s unrealistic optimism affects their judgment. For us, there was no room to conceive of not actually speaking with Bobby Brown, because as a child, you exist in the world of possibility. Possibility gives birth to your imagination and also accounts for the billion-dollar industries that support belief in mythical creatures like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.

The persistent hope and unfailing optimism-at-all-odds attitude that we develop in our youth dims as we age. We no longer regard mythical creatures or esteem others in the same way as we did when we were younger.

Sometimes, however, old habits die hard. As an adult, this unexamined optimism takes the appearance of overshooting when setting goals. We often use that steadfast optimism we developed in our youth to set standards for ourselves and the aims we wish to achieve, without tempering it with pragmatism or giving regard to our very real circumstances.

Overshooting when setting a goal, can look like aiming to lose 35 pounds in 3 weeks, studying for a standardized exam in 2 weeks, or writing 5,000 words per day with only 1 hour dedicated to writing per day.

At times our desires outmatch our capability and the result is a very skewed ideal that has no place in reality. When this happens to me, I find myself doing three things: (1) writing my ideal goal, a really great outcome, and a minimum result I’d like to see, (2) leaning on my support system, and (3) sitting with desire.

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1. Writing three possible outcomes all of them good.

When I write down three possible outcomes, I allow optimism to engage itself. I create an ideal outcome, which would be the equivalent of the younger me speaking to Bobby Brown. When you establish this ideal goal, it allows you to engage your imagination, and to also be unafraid of admitting (at least to yourself), what would be the best possible result in a particular area.

This is the Lil’ Magic (from In Living Color), “Producer’s gonna fly us to Hollywood so Momma can get a new wig,” sort of dream–the highest of heights, putting your heart into everything you hope will happen ideal.

When I do this, I don’t hold back–it is still within reason because I would never aim to become an astronaut, as that is not the path that I have chosen, nor is it my true desire. So this isn’t an idle hope for something that is completely unrelated to your goals, but something that is reminiscent of youthful optimism at its peak, and related to the aims you are pursuing.

The second level of possible outcomes, a really great outcome is a reasoned expectation that if everything went well, and I give 110%, do not take a day off, and have a lot of luck on my side, what I can hope to accomplish. This is still a lofty ideal, but not as audacious as a Lil’ Magic dream. It requires a lot of work, and it engages the most reasonable parts of yourself, that pragmatic you.

The third tier, the minimum result, also requires hard work but takes into account your very real circumstances. This is not an attempt at settling. This is you asking yourself, what would I want to walk away with, at the very least, while pursuing this goal.

This target is the most pragmatic because each tier of possible outcomes is matched by the work that you are committing yourself to. If you have limits that are imposed by work, family obligations, and other parts of your life, then this minimum goal should reflect you giving your best consistent with the time, energy, and resources you have.

While you are working steadily at your goal, the availability of those things may change in your favor, so that a lofty goal does not seem as far away, or after some time, a Li’l Magic dream will take a lot less longer than you initially anticipated.

I ensure that I write each of these three possible outcomes down so that I can see what I am working towards regularly, and so that I feel that I have actually given voice to my goals.

Sometimes thoughts can lurk in our imagination and become easily forgotten because we have subconsciously talked ourselves out of the very thing we claim to want. It feels a lot less ridiculous when I write it down. I explore avenues of what I would need to do and what would have to happen for those goals to be realized. And surprisingly, in giving voice to, and outlining steps to work towards my goals, they do not seem as far off as I thought.

2. Leaning on support systems

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While many of us are very self-sufficient and are loathe to ask for help from those closest to us, our self-care often requires us to reach out. For people who have our best interests at heart, and whose lives are equally bound up with our own, it is less onerous than we think to rely on them, or to ask them for help.

This can take the form of telling your spouse you need them to take the kids out for a couple hours while you write, or interview someone, or take a nap, or whatever you need to maintain the equilibrium to pursue your goals.

You can also rely on loved ones to help you add time back to your schedule by taking on tasks that you previously engaged in–cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, doing yardwork, etc.

Leaning on your support system can also mean asking a close friend to serve as an accountability partner for your fitness goals, or your spring cleaning, or whatever you have designed as your next objective to tackle. It can take the form of asking your kids stretch their capacities.

My toddler knows that when Mommy sings the clean-up time song, it is his cue to collect the toys he has scattered everywhere.

Additionally, if you have the resources to outsource certain tasks in order to create more space for yourself, this would be another way of relying on your support system.

3. Sitting with desire

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At the core of optimism, is an acknowledgment that we want–that we are human and we have desires. It is useful to take moments to step outside of ourselves and just be.

While I am an amateur at meditation, I try to create space each morning (or whenever I can) dedicated to mindfulness. If I have a goal that I want to achieve, and my optimism has overridden my pragmatism, I try to sit with my desire. I don’t ask probing questions about why I want it, or how my life would be better by it, I just accept that I have the desire.

I give myself a moment to recognize that it is okay for me to want, and I acknowledge the idea, sit with it, and try to release it. It may sound kind of weird at first (I thought it did too), but actively trying to give my desires space to breathe for themselves, makes me less goal-obsessed. When I do this, I am less anxious about outcomes and more appreciative of the journey I am on, just by taking a moment to sit.

I am the queen of over-analyzing everything, so I force myself not to ask those questions about why in these moments. I just am. This has been a good way for me to acknowledge that I am optimistic and that it is okay, as long as I am present, and do not live in my thoughts and desires, but in the world where I have my family and friends, good books and beautiful sunsets, and a lot to be grateful for already.

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