I’m not going to tell you to ALWAYS BE POSITIVE: we don’t claim that returning to work after a long break is easy – wishful-thinking can mean sticking your head in the sand. The ‘unrealistic’ optimist can wait for the perfect job to land in her lap or will keep going with an unsuccessful strategy (such as scatter-gun online applications) as she believes that ‘it will all come right in the end’.
On the other hand, we commonly find that the returner who claims she is being ‘realistic’ is actually holding a pessimistic perspective that too quickly dismisses the possibility of finding a rewarding job with a reasonable lifestyle.The pessimistic ‘realist’ tends to believe the worst, rapidly hits disillusionment when she hits a few setbacks and decides that it’s hopeless and not worth the effort.
I prefer the perspective of psychologist Sandra Schneider who suggests that optimism and realism are not in conflict – we need both. She proposes that we aim for ‘realistic optimism’. The realistic optimist finds out the facts and the data; she acknowledges the challenges and constraints she faces. Her optimism comes into play in her interpretation of ambiguous events – she recognises that many situations have a range of possible interpretations and chooses a helpful rather than an unhelpful one. She gives people the benefit of the doubt, is aware of the positives in her current situation and actively looks for opportunities in the future.
How to develop your ‘realistic optimism’ in practice
You face a setback, for example you’ve sent a ‘getting back in touch’ email to an old colleague and haven’t received a reply after a week. Your first response might be to conclude that she’s not interested in talking to you, she doesn’t remember you or maybe she didn’t like you anyway. So you feel dispirited, write her off as a network contact and lose motivation to pursue other contacts. Instead try this:
- Think creatively of all the other realistic reasons why she hasn’t replied. Maybe your email is sitting in her Junk Mail, maybe she put it aside to reply to later and it got lost in her inbox, maybe she’s changed her email address, maybe she’s on holiday or working abroad or just frantically busy … there are so many possibilities.
- Thinking about this wide variety of explanations, decide how to respond so you are in control. Send the email again to check you have the correct address, contact her through a mutual friend or pick up the phone and call her.
- If she still doesn’t get back to you, choose a realistically optimistic interpretation that doesn’t knock your self-confidence (e.g. even if she’s too busy, you can still contact others) and try a different strategy. Continually weigh up the facts and creatively consider all your options to decide the best course of action.
There’s evidence that realistic optimism can boost your resilience and motivation, improve your day-to-day satisfaction with life and lead to better work outcomes. And it’s not about your genes – we can all learn to be realistic optimists.
Posted by Julianne
For those of you interested in the research
Schneider, S.L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: meaning, knowledge and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.