Best of times; Worst of times

Dickens captured the state of all human condition in his pithy phase “It is the best of the times; it is the worst of the times.” It has always been so and always will be. A contemporary turn of the phrase is found in the question: “Is the glass half empty or half full?” Given our personal disposition as an optimist or a pessimist, our mood, or immediate state of affairs, all of us can easily respond with either “empty” or “full” and not think further of it. Dicken’s quote is another way of saying that the glass is BOTH half empty and half full– and always has been.

At times, we overcome our binary view of life (half full or half empty) and get a glimpse of reality- life is BOTH. What changes is not our time or our life or our reality but simply our view of it. To comprehend the phrase “It is the best of the times, it is the worst of the times” in the context of one’s role as a public administrator and one’s specific situation is an enlightened point of view that permits one the possibility of more accurately assessing one’s actual state of affairs. When administrators and leaders understand this, they put themselves in position to solve previously insoluble problems and to provide a new yin/yang in their organization.

Recently, I have been participating in several committees that are variously charged with refining, revising or redirecting several programs of a large organization. Members of the committees are all experienced leaders, administrators and managers drawn from a range of business functions and each brings a valuable and unique perspective to the table. Inevitably, and almost immediately, cynicism and pessimism are introduced into the dialogue. In other words, the starting point seems to always be that the glass is half empty– “Things can never change.” “The Elected Officials will never go for that.” “We tried that once.” “Rank and file will fight or grieve it.” This negativity is contagious and stifling and often brings creative thinking and brainstorming to a screeching halt. This pessimism becomes self-defeating and self-fulfilling. A leader or a team who is convinced that nothing can change will never envision what might be or what is possible. They will never imagine a new way. They will never problem solve. They will never do what it takes to move to a different place.

On the other hand, optimism, or the half full glass perspective, offers the possibility of freedom from the status quo. The hopeful “I think I can. I think I can….” of the little steam engine leads to the confidence of “We will overcome.” General Colin Powell is quoted as saying, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” When a task or project is undertaken with a “can do”, optimistic attitude, thoughts and action turn to how it can be done rather than the pessimistic question of whether it is possible. The belief that an outcome can be achieved changes the very substance of planning and problem solving. Every thought and action is enhanced and guided to find successful solutions. Time and effort are conserved and focused on productive activity rather than on why something can’t be done.

In the 18th century novel “Candide: or, Optimism”, Voltaire satirizes and mocks the Leibnizian mantra “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” Just as the simplistic and ungrounded optimism that Voltaire lampoons through the exploits of Candide is misplaced and naive, so too, unbridled optimism in today’s workplace can be unproductive and even as destructive as pessimism. The type of optimism that fails to account for the empty volume of the glass and which fails to recognize that the glass is BOTH half full and half empty usually results in missteps, misjudgment, discouragement and failure.

Engineers like to quip that the glass is neither half full nor half empty- it is completely full with part of the volume being comprised of a liquid and the remainder comprised of air. This pragmatic assessment provides a more clear vision of reality which informs a whole new set of possibilities. Pessimism has no exclusive claim to reality. Pragmatism and optimism can and do coexist and complement each other.

The challenge for public administrators and managers is shun the kneejerk and intellectually lazy impulse to negativity, cynicism and pessimism. The challenge is to envision and communicate possibilities. Pessimism and optimism are both contagious and can be transmitted to others. The bad news is that negativity is virulent and spreads rapidly while optimism has a much longer incubation and its spread can be easily interrupted. The good news is that optimism, when thoughtful, nurtured and communicated is much more transformative and powerful.

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