At present, there seems to be a lot of ‘not so great’ stuff going on in the world. It’s tricky to make sense of at times and can affect our whole outlook. But if we let it overwhelm us, it impacts on our ability to create value and be our better selves.
In these situations, the typical question is “Are you a ‘glass half full’ or a ‘glass half empty’ kind of person?”
These expressions irritate me, and here’s why…
Imagine my cup of morning coffee. I take it black in my favourite blue mug. It has a rich, chocolatey aroma and sets me up for the day.
To my mind, there’s no such thing as half full or half empty. Because your cup or glass is actually always full. Full of water, full of tea, full of wine. When you’ve drunk half of it, it’s still full. And even when you’re done … yip, it’s still full.
The reason for this is simple. When your cup is no longer full of liquid, it’s full of air instead. It’s filled with space, which means it’s filled with other good things…
For the naysayers out there, bear with me.
Being optimistic is the first step towards achieving our goals and supporting our general health and wellbeing. An optimistic explanatory style also builds our resilience and tenacity. It helps us cope better when we do face dark or difficult times. (Read Martin Seligman’s work for a deeper dive on this).
Helen Keller was a prolific writer and a social and political activist. She also happened to be deaf and blind. Given her circumstances, her level of optimism and determination is mind-blowing. (I’ll quote her a few times here, but her 1903 essay on “Optimism” is well worth a read).
Some will argue that we need a bit of pessimism or realism to balance things out. To avoid being deluded when there are harsh realities to be faced. That may be relevant in some cases, but there’s another way too… it involves pragmatic optimism.
They believe things can get better, that life has possibility, but they also know that it will take some work. Their hope is tied to both an outcome and a process, instead of a delusion.
This idea of possibility is linked to our self-image. If we don’t believe something is possible, then we can’t or won’t make it happen. As Henry Ford put it:* “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”*
Our identity impacts on how we think. If we only see the world — events and people in it — from a negative light, we close down our opportunities and our potential. We act small.
It’s the same as how we see the cup. Seeing it as full (and overflowing with possibility) helps us identify with the capacity to do anything. The capacity to change things, in spite of what might be happening around us.
Pragmatic optimists face situations and achieve goals with a positive purpose and a solution-minded approach. That means having confidence in yourself that you can achieve something, but also a willingness to experiment with the method or process by which you attain it. It takes realistic, constructive doing.
Train your attention to see potential and capability. Solution instead of problem. Discovery instead of delusion. Be and seek the best within the constraints of your reality.
In this short clip, Viktor Frankl talks about optimistic possibility. How overestimating people’s capabilities helps them to become better versions of themselves. Referencing Goethe, he says “when we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming what he can be.”
Pragmatic optimism is becoming a movement. There’s even a league set up to support people in this way of thinking — I kid you not.
If you make being sensibly hopeful a habit, it will propel you forward on the good days and help you get through the bad ones.
Whether life is throwing lemons at you, or you’re purposefully picking them, you have the chance to use your receptacle of choice to make lemonade, limoncello, or a gin & tonic.
There are other possibilities out there too. But only if you believe that the glass is always full of opportunity.
What potential is waiting in your cup?