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Realistic optimists tend to believe they will succeed but also that they have to make success happen through hard work. Krishnendu Halder / Reuters
Realistic optimists tend to believe they will succeed but also that they have to make success happen through hard work. Krishnendu Halder / Reuters
Realistic optimists tend to believe they will succeed but also that they have to make success happen through hard work. Krishnendu Halder / Reuters

You had better believe it

The Life: Visualising effortless success may not only be unhelpful, but ultimately disastrous. Sometime a simple dose of realism is the key for doing well going forward.

From motivational speakers in the workplace to self-improvement titles crammed on bookstore shelves, their messages are often surprisingly similar: believe that success will come easily, and it will.

The only problem: that message is utterly false.

Unfortunately, this does not stop some professionals from making such claims, says Heidi Grant Halvorson, a motivational psychologist and author who wrote a recent article for Harvard Business Review.

Ms Grant Halvorson contends that visualising "effortless success" is not only unhelpful but ultimately disastrous. She says the advice should be given only when trying to sabotage someone's career. "It is a recipe for failure," she claims. "And no, I'm not overstating it."

How can this be?

Ms Grant Halvorson acknowledges that optimism is a good thing because it provides confidence, which is crucial for creating and sustaining the necessary motivation for reaching a goal. She even points to research by Albert Bandura, a scientific psychologist, who discovered decades ago that perhaps the best predictor of an individual's success is whether they believe they will succeed. Thousands and thousands of experiments later, she says, Mr Bandura has yet to be proved wrong.

But there is an important caveat. To be successful, people need to understand the vital difference between believing they will succeed and believing they will succeed easily, says Ms Grant Halvorson. In other words, it's the difference between being a realistic optimist and an unrealistic one.

Realistic optimists tend to believe they will succeed but also that they have to make success happen through effort, careful planning, persistence and choosing the right strategies. They recognise the need for giving serious thought to how they will deal with obstacles. This preparation only increases their confidence in their own ability to get things done. Unrealistic optimists believe success will happen and that the universe will reward them for all their positive thinking or transform individuals overnight into the kind of people for whom obstacles cease to exist.

One illustration of the dangers of unrealistic optimism comes from work done by Gabriele Oettingen, a psychologist.

She has found certain patterns of results in studies of students who were looking for high-paying jobs after college, singles looking to find lasting love and seniors recovering from hip replacement surgery.

Realistic optimists sent out more job applications, found the courage to approach potential romantic partners and worked harder on their rehabilitation exercises, which, in each case, led to much higher success rates.

Believing that the road to success will be rocky leads to greater success because it forces people to take action, says Ms Grant Halvorson. People who are confident they will succeed, and equally confident that success won't come easily, put in more effort, plan how they'll deal with problems before they arise, and persist longer in the face of difficulty.

Unrealistic optimists are only too happy to tell others that they are "being negative" when they dare to express concerns, harbour reservations, or dwell too long on obstacles that stand in the way of a goal.

Focusing only on what someone wants, to the exclusion of everything else, is just the kind of naive and reckless thinking that has landed industry leaders - and at times entire industries - in trouble.

In short, people should cultivate their realistic optimism by combining a positive attitude with an honest assessment of the challenges that await them, says Ms Grant Halvorson. Instead of visualising success, people should visualise the steps they will take in order to make success happen.

* with Reuters.

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