Optimism Can Be A Learned Behavior

I’ve always had a deep seated desire to make a big difference in this world. I’m talking about doing something worthy to get a street or building named after me! (Then again, if they name it Nguyen, then it could be anybody!)

I imagine most of you share a similar desire. And yet, it feels the path I’m on will lead me to a stable, middle income family with all the typical trappings of taking my kid to school, paying the bills, and getting excited about the latest gizmo. What about changing the world?!

In my research, a reoccurring takeaway is to have a purpose. Having a purpose leads to a longer life, a happier life, and also a more optimistic life. Optimism is the theme for the next several emails, where we’ll deconstruct what that means and how to be more of it.

Be More Significant

I think I’ve been focusing on the wrong thing. I shouldn’t worry about if I’ve changed the world. Instead, I should be focused on having a purpose, and letting that purpose change the world around me.

First, what is optimism? ‘Optimism’ embraces two closely correlated concepts:

  1. the first is the inclination to hope, while
  2. the second more generally refers to the tendency to believe that we live in “the best of all possible worlds”, as coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz [11]

Simply put, you gotta have hope and you gotta, more often than not, believe things are going pretty good.

Why should you care if you’re optimistic enough? Research shows:

  • A strong correlation between optimism and the ability to have good coping strategies and to see the “silver lining” during stressful situations. [11]
  • Optimistic people are healthier, do better in school, age more gracefully, and are less depressed; they also approach life’s difficulties in a more productive way. [10]

Be a Maverick, Not a Hustler


When I first became a supervisor, I was so excited and nervous at the prospect of running my own staff meeting. Suddenly, there would be a room full of people looking to me to direct them, and maybe even to inspire them. Unconfident in my own voice, I repeated what all my past supervisors did. Sure, I tried to give it my own spin, but by and large, it was a repeat of the same old.

Ten years later, my staff meetings are much more in my own style. I make jokes, we dig deeper into controversial topics, and I give them insight into what I’m thinking. It took me years to realize what I needed to be is continue to be a maverick if I was to be relevant. I became a maverick when I started to believe there could be a better way.

In my counter-culture fight against the toxic hustler productivity culture, here are a few points to hammer home the need to be a maverick and be more optimistic.

  • “Out-of-the-box” thinkers, mavericks, and creative entrepreneurs are externally super-optimists and internally super-critics. [4]
  • “Risk and iterate” performance goal that encouraged each team member to identify something they would take a risk with and then iterate solutions throughout the year. This effort legitimized the possibility of failure and created safety for designers to tackle the scary problems. [2]
  • You may be open to experimenting with new things, but do you truly see the good in something before the bad? [3]

Stop Being So Negative With Just One Word

Feels like I’m not firing on all cylinders these days. At work, I’m not as engaged and coming up with ideas like I usually do. For example, I gave a talk in front of a roomful of people yesterday and felt it lacked energy. At home, it feels like I’m being stretched too thin and leaving no one happy. For example, my elderly parents want more of my time.

Moments like, I can get a bit punishing on myself. I demand that I need to do better.

And yet… there’s always tomorrow. Today may not have gone the best but I know there’s a later, a tomorrow. In other words, it does give me comfort to know that I don’t need to be too hard on my failure because just around the corner is another chance to be better.

Dr. Joelson, a practicing NYC psychotherapist and author, gives this advice:

Yet. Perhaps you might find this word a useful addition to your own emotional vocabulary, especially when you observe pessimism interfering with your ability to be reasonably hopeful and optimistic when an outcome has yet to occur. [8]

Similarly, Bergland, a world class endurance athlete (he ran 153 miles on the treadmill!), does this:

My lifelong battle to keep a hardwired predisposition for clinical depression at bay, reciting the words, “There will be sunbeams in your soul again,” never fails to buoy my spirits. [9]

Takeaway — Find a word, a phrase, a poem, a mantra, whatever. Use that to “trigger” yourself to snap out of it. With repetition, you can reprogram yourself.

Design Your Life to be More Positive


I like to peruse Google News to stay in the know. What do I see? Headlines about Trump unleashed after being acquitted. Democratic candidates going at it with each other. Coronavirus having crazy impacts all around the world. (Can you imagine being quarantined on a cruise ship for 14 days as more and more passengers get sick?! And what if you have an interior cabin with no windows?! YIKES!)

My point is news is important, but it does have an impact on our psyche. Left untended, we give up control on what our eyeballs see and what we spend time thinking about. Don’t be a zombie!

McGinley, a wellness instructor, reiterates my point:

It feels like Chicken Little is always saying that the sky is falling. Watching the news in this day and age is relatively counterproductive to your feeling of positivity for the future. If the news makes you anxious, change the channel! Or, turn it off all together and trust that you’ll know what you need to know, when you need to know it.

So what to do? I suggest building your own bubble. In other words, setup your world so you’re getting the information you want, which should be more positive.

  • Subscribe to specific news topics. For example, in Google News, I follow topics like photography and productivity, and brands like GQ (because I need to look sharp while in Starbucks)
  • Choose who you follow on social media carefully. By following celebrities, models, or influencers, you may get depressed because you start comparing your life to theirs. I suggest a mixture that has more inspiring images, such as nature, destinations, and architecture.
  • I can’t help but suggest one of my favorites lately, @influencersinthewild. As the handle suggests, these are videos of normal people filming influencers trying to take their “perfect” pictures and its hilarious.
  • Scrub your inbox. Unsubscribe to all those useless emails (not mine!) and instead, subscribe to a few that you would really respect and add to your life. Think about a person or two that you respect and chances are, they have a website and maybe a newsletter.


  1. Optimist Guide to 2020 (Bloomberg)
  2. Your Optimism Might Be Stifling Your Team by Liz Wiseman
  3. Learning Optimism with the 24×3 Rule by Anthony K. Tjan
  4. Lead with Optimism by Anthony K. Tjan
  5. Craft a Narrative to Instill Optimism by John Baldoni
  6. Take This Quiz to Figure Out How to Be Happier at Work by Annie McKee
  7. Optimism by Psychology Today
  8. The Power of “Yet” by Richard B. Joelson
  9. Learning to “Expect Nothing” Reshaped My Pessimistic Mindset by Christopher Bergland
  10. 8 Ways to Choose Optimism Over Pessimism by Karson McGinley
  11. Optimism and Its Impact on Mental and Physical Well-Being by Ciro Conversano

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