Is optimism's the most formidable arsenal in an entrepreneur's at the behest of an entrepreneur or is it his/her biggest downfall? Read on to find out whether it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Many consider optimism to be an entrepreneur’s most powerful tool. It is after all an ability to articulate a new future, a new possibility and a new way of doing something that most fundamentally drives enterprises and enables businesses to stay the course. Yet, is optimism always wondrous and beneficial? What are the limits of optimism? Where does optimism end and delusion begin, for example? How does an overdose of it endanger your business? Read on to deconstruct optimism.
The Diary of an Eternal Optimist
Inc. India’s publisher Anuradha Das Mathur is a self-confessed “congenital optimist”, and a keen student of the science of optimism. Despite the many benefits, her brand of optimism has sometimes been a challenge to explain to clients, employees, investors and sometimes even her co-founders. Read her honest account of the perils, but more importantly, the possibilities of optimism when building a business.
In a world where excel sheets dictate one’s aspirations and expectations, how does one weave in the optimism upswing? When CFOs puncture your dreams so that their forecasts are accurate, how do you continue to push for the stars without feeling restrained, or even worse, unrealistic?
The truth of the matter, to the disadvantage of the optimist is that often achievement is short of the aspiration. In a logical world, this suggests one should temper expectations. However, the voice in my head says, the lower you aim, the lower you will land. Is it then worth it to trade off potential for accuracy? The answer depends on who you are and increasingly, I believe, on whether you have the courage to fail, to be wrong. Can you put out a big dream and then only achieve some part of it? Not if you’re a blue-blooded corporate executive with a reputation to protect. You’d much rather rein in your optimism, be realistic, aim lower and then deliver against—or even ahead of—the promise. That’s what makes you the star!weave in the optimism upswing? When CFOs puncture your dreams so that their forecasts are accurate, how do you continue to push for the stars without feeling restrained, or even worse, unrealistic?The “eternal optimist”—in a world of cynics, realists and practical people, this label had begun to confuse me. Is it a compliment or is someone calling me naïve and foolhardy, suggesting that I live my life on a wing and a prayer? I don’t quite do that, but the glass usually looks full—one half with water and the other half with air. Given that this attitude isn’t widespread, it can leave the eternal optimist feeling isolated or different—trying to figure out what to do with this blessing (in disguise!).
I would often worry that I didn’t have what it takes to run a business, based on what I saw others doing and thinking. Equally I noticed my frustration when ideas were thrown out before being tried and the fact that my optimism always made me see possibilities where some of the others saw a problem. They would ask me clever questions to which I had no answers and I would have to back off—especially after the first couple of years of under-delivering against promises. But, my insides refused to budge—how I felt about the future and where we were headed always looked like a place I wanted to be in. The good thing about a partnership is that at any given time, someone else was feeling optimistic also so we kept at it. We chased some promising ideas and some not-so-promising ones as well—these were the times when optimism won.But if you’re an entrepreneur, you have a chance to benefit from this optimism—as I learnt a few years ago when I began my life as an entrepreneur. Even though it doesn’t seem so to begin with, my co-founders at 9.9 Media and I, like all good and wholesome things, represent extremes like chalk and cheese. I frustrated them endlessly with my fearless optimism—convinced them of far-out targets and how we could get to them—and then fell short of meeting them. I embarrassed them in front of our investors, and often tried talking myself into realism but it was not to be. The saving grace was that the realists were equally off the mark!
I am not quite sure how long this could have lasted but, honestly, I got lucky. A couple of years ago, lots of literature started showing up on how entrepreneurs are different from corporate managers, and how an essential ingredient differentiating the two was the quantum of optimism they came with. Suddenly I felt less out of place. A reputed professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, Saras Sarasvathy, identifies the entrepreneurial DNA with the following characteristics:
• Get on with it, instead of waiting for the perfect time, place, opportunity. The underlying belief is that you don’t need all the answers before you get started because there will be as much if not greater opportunity in the future. And that the path will clear up as we go along.
• Start with what you have and be prepared to walk away if it doesn’t work out (affordable loss). Entrepreneurs demonstrate a certain impatience with planning and too much research. My hunch is that the optimist within doesn’t want to risk being told it won’t work out; we aren’t willing to believe that till we try it! The future isn’t predictable—it has to be imagined and according to an entrepreneur “careful forecast is the enemy of fortuitous surprise.” It’s no surprise that I agree.
• Woo partners first. Instead of wasting time surveying the market for customers, find one. Just one to begin—he will get the next few and then a business will follow. There is an inherent faith in people.
• Sweat competitors later. Entrepreneurs worry less about competitors because they believe if they can be successful for themselves, then why bother about others. Actually, they worry less. Period.
• Don’t limit yourself. Entrepreneurs believe that the reality has the potential to be better than it seems just now. They don’t want to limit themselves on the basis of currently available incomplete information. In fact, their enthusiasm around future possibilities is what keeps them going.
As if all this wasn’t good enough to help me feel less like a freaky optimist, but just because I expect it to, it keeps getting even better. Recent research by Tali Sharot, a renowned psychologist and neuroscientist, suggests that 80 per cent of the human race has an “optimism bias”. So, it’s not just entrepreneurs, it is most of us. If you’ve ever been accused of being too optimistic, don’t worry. I am okay, and so are you.The more I think about these, the more I recognise the die-hard optimist in the entrepreneurial DNA. One more thing, Dewitt Jones, a National Geographic photographer urges everyone to “celebrate what’s right with the world”. Is this yet another way to think about optimism? He goes further and says, “focusing on what’s right gives us the energy to fix what’s wrong”. That sounds like people who build and create, doesn’t it?
Anuradha Das Mathur is a Founder Director at 9.9 Media, a self confessed 'rain junkie' and a formidable scrabbler. She can be found at https://twitter.com/dasmathur.