Thursday, April 7, 2016

Can Optimism Kill You?

It has been said that humans are "hard-wired for hope".  It is generally true and, while it can have many positive benefits, and most certainly helped us survive this long, it can also be a dangerous thing as can any bias to our perceptions and thinking.

I freely admit that the title of this post is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but, hey, it sounded funny, so there it is.  But the real punchline is that the answer to the question is "yes".

The point of this post is to take a moment to simply cast a light on our optimism bias and the negative consequences it can have.  As I make the point, it will seem obvious, and since both of us are human, it will slowly fade as our optimism bias kicks in and our brain refines it to:
That is a good point, good thing I know it, because now I can avoid it flawlessly, cause *I* rock!  W00t!  High fives all around, me!
[Before I forget, this article in Time magazine raises some good points on this topic as do many, many others.]

The Risk of Arrogance

One lesson that I learned too slowly in life was that optimism can not only come off as arrogant, it can be an absolute form of arrogance.  For me, this gets at the crux of the downsides to optimism bias.

For example, let's say you were just assigned to a team to resolve a thorny problem.  Most of the members, if not every one of them, have been wrestling with this problem for years.  You waltz in, all fired up to solve this problem, because, hey, you've solved problems before and this is a problem.  you gush with optimism about how "do-able" this is.

To many of those folks you are at a high risk of being perceived as arrogant, naive, or both.  Not a smart start, because you should be balancing your optimism about solving this problem against the fact that the team you need to work with has struggled with solving it for years and it may be harder than you think.

Does that mean you should approach every problem with a sense of doom and capitulation?  No.  But there is a happy medium.

On a personal level, the risks are manifold.  You see a challenge, do the math, and your optimism bias starts rapidly rounding numbers in your favor.  Before you know it, you are creating great YouTube material for Tosh.0 and frantically trying to find your medical insurance information for your trip to the emergency room.

Or maybe that never happens to you, because, hey, you are more awesome than everyone else.  Chances are, it does (perhaps in a less dramatic fashion) and managing this can help you and your colleagues be more successful.

Setting Yourself Up for Failure

One example of this is found in the community college student population.  The Center for Community College Student Engagement at UT-Austin's Spring 2016 report Expectations Meet Reality: The Underprepared Student and Community Colleges discusses in length the challenges facing:
"...the two-thirds of community college students who enter our institutions every year underprepared and not ready for college-level work."

TWO THIRDS.  Let that sink in.  Most of the students applying are not prepared.  But they think they are.

In fact, according to this report, 86% of entering students believe they are academically prepared, but 68% end up requiring development education.

It's a Battle You Can Win

Remember those students that were overly optimistic about their preparation?  Well, it is not just blind arrogance.  Once they come to grips with the reality of the situation, they are on board with it.  In fact, 65%-70% of students placed in developmental courses feel they were placed appropriately.

So, we can fight this battle, with:
  • Good, objective data
  • Engaging others to provide their perspective (and maybe some humility)
  • Routinely doing a "reality check" on our assumptions
  • Actively trying to be honest with ourselves and our capabilities
We will still succumb, but we can do better (optimistic, huh?).

Optimism can be a good thing.  It helps us keep going.  It helps drive ambition and things like going to the moon.

But it is a double-edged sword.  It biases our thinking and we need to be mindful of that.  Let's use it to our advantage.  Perhaps we should coin a new phrase, be optimistic cautiously.

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