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We built a business together. In 2003, we co-authored a book based on our work helping organisations take better care of their employees. The problem was that we ourselves weren’t doing a very good job taking care of each other. The irony wasn’t lost on me, but partnerships are always challenging, and ours was inexorably fraying.
Finally, one day, after a series of discussions, my partner made it clear he didn’t want to continue to work together. My first reaction was shock. Our book, after all, had just become a #1 bestseller.
For most of my life, I was someone who saw the cup as half empty. In my mind, pessimism was simply realism. I took this to be my temperament — an unchangeable personality trait. I had even grown comfortable with my discomfort. Worrying was a way to stay alert to all the ways that things might go wrong. What better evidence than this turn of events?
In the course of working with leaders, however, I had also become deeply interested in the difference between facts and stories.
A fact is something irrefutable. It can be objectively verified by any person.
A story is something we weave to make sense of the facts. We are meaning making creatures. We seek to understand.
It would have been incredibly easy and understandable for me to tell a pessimistic story about the facts in this situation. I’d just lost a job I loved. I had a young family to support. I was in my mid 40s and there was no obvious new job to go after.
The problem, I’d come to realise, is that these sorts of negative stories are dispiriting and disempowering. Meanwhile, negative emotions such as anger, fear and blame make it harder to think clearly and creatively, and can even be paralyzing.
Over the previous several months, I had begun experimenting with a new morning “ritual.” It was built around cultivating something called “realistic optimism” — namely the practice of telling the most hopeful and empowering story in any given situation, without denying the facts.
For years, when I woke up, my pattern had been to scan my mind until I fixed on some imagined difficulty I was facing that day. Then I started ruminating about what might go wrong. By the time I stepped out of bed, I was usually anxious and off balance.
The new ritual I built was to get out of bed when I awoke, go to my desk, and write down what I was worrying about — just the facts. Next, I wrote down the story I was telling myself about those facts. Finally, I worked to conceive a more realistically optimistic story I could tell myself, based on the same incontrovertible facts.
I did this every morning, dutifully, for several months, and it usually made me feel at least a little better. I also began to notice that the negative outcome I initially imagined rarely came to pass.
Finally one morning I woke up, and as usual, a challenging issue for that day came into my mind. This time, however, before any negative story could take its usual place, a more realistically optimistic one occurred to me, effortlessly.
Something profound had occurred. In the days ahead, it was if my whole centre of gravity had shifted. I felt like the sun had finally broken through the clouds and it was there to stay. What happened, I believe, is that through my ritual, I ultimately created new neural paths in my brain.
I still remember what happened on the day that my partner called to tell me he no longer wanted to work together. When we got off the phone, the first thought that went through my head was “OK, so what’s the most realistically optimistic story I can tell myself right now?”
An answer came to me almost immediately. “You’ve finally got your chance to do something that is truly your own. This is an incredible opportunity.”
I certainly experienced moments of anger, fear and doubt in the weeks and months ahead. But I never dwelled on them for long. Instead, I moved quickly each time to tell a more positive story about where I was headed.
I drew strength from the fact that I wasn’t squandering energy on feeling sorry for myself, or embittered about what had happened. I focused my energy instead on the new venture I was about to launch.
Today, I’ve built a company I feel deeply proud of, and my partners are group of people I look forward to collaborating with every day. We’re doing work I never would have been able to do with my former partner.
I’m also known in our company for being our most relentless optimist. Here’s evidence: I now consider losing my job a decade ago one of the best things that ever happened to me.