Time for a Change #25: Improvement through Optimization

by William Reed on September 20, 2012

When you think of the word Optimization, does it call up images of pushing yourself to make efforts to achieve, or of imagining a better situation and pulling yourself toward it? How you think about it determines how you go about it. You can plant your feet in the past and push uphill, or you can picture yourself in the future and pull yourself where you want to be.

The Principle of Optimization is really the Principle of Optimism, the belief in positive outcomes. One reason why successful people make it look easy is because they feel easy. They stay focussed on the goal, and do not get mired down trying to push the rock uphill.

Say farewell to Mr. Murphy

The Principle of Optimization could shed light on the Principle of Pessimism, Murphy’s Law, the peculiar assumption that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Perhaps this should be amended to read, anything that can go wrong will go wrong, if you expect it to.

People joke about having a Plan B, because Plan A never seems to work. Ironically, it often turns out that Plan B is no better than Plan A, and as a battle veteran once said, the only thing left to do is run like hell.

All too many people, frustrated by unfulfilled dreams and difficult circumstances, become exhausted in trying to push the rock uphill, only to find it roll back down again, a story as old as ancient Greece in the Myth of Sisyphus. Pessimists are very good at proving their point, which in the end is pointless.

You may find you have two inner voices, one encouraging your to move on to higher heights, and one telling you to get on with the grunt work. The quality of your life depends on which voice you listen to, and which way you turn.

The real meaning of the Principle of Optimization is that once you have understood where you are, and know where you want to be, you can place a mental hook at your goal and pull yourself toward it with an Optimistic attitude. In this sense, you are on a constant quest to make things better.

Positive Psychology starts with a calm mind

And so does negative psychology. Each one is an application of the same principle, that actions tend to follow intentions, the body follows the mind. Spending hours playing violent video games is not likely to lead to random acts of kindness.

Positive Psychology works because it points you in the right direction. The problem is that the negative inner voice also wants to be heard, and is not easily silenced. The key is to calm your mind through meditation first, and then realize that you have a choice. Even 15 minutes of meditation can change your day for the better. Click here for an excellent introduction to Zazen Meditation, with video and an iPhone App called Undo 雲堂 (literally cloud hall, a place where monks meditate).

Engaging in this simple practice will help clarify for you the meaning in messages and events, and make you more aware that your own attitude and thoughts are either part of the problem, or part of the solution. It will also make you less subject to distraction, and more master of your thoughts.

Optimism gets results

Dr. Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, and one of the leading lights in the field of Positive Psychology, conducted a study for Metropolitan Life to follow the performance of new hires after measuring their levels of optimism. Among the new hires were those who actually failed the insurance company’s screening test, but scored as super-optimists on Dr. Seligman’s test. They were hired anyway, and the super-optimists outsold the pessimists in the regular group by 21% in the first year and 57% in the second year. According to HR Magazine, after Met Life began screening job applicants for optimism, in less than two years the company expanded its sales force by 12,000 agents, and increased its share of the personal insurance market by 50%. You can download here a PDF of the MetLife Case Study.

The Optimists achieved Optimal results, because they remained focused on a positive outcome, and did not look for excuses to explain why things weren’t going well. Moreover, optimists appear young even when they are old in years, and pessimists appear old even when they are young in years.

Samuel Ullman (1840~1924) was an American businessman, poet, and humanitarian, best known for his poem on Youth, which was a favorite of General Douglas MacArthur as well as Konosuke Matsushita, the founder of Panasonic, and still considered to be one of Japan’s greatest philosophers of management. Years before the MetLife Case study, Konosuke Matsushita was hiring people on the basis of one fundamental question, “Do you consider yourself to be an optimist?”

How can you get started?

There are four fundamental things you can do to turn yourself into an optimist, or to become a super-optimist if you already are one.

  • Practice daily Meditation. A calm mind is a clear mind. Self-awareness gives you more freedom to make a choice, and a better vision of where you want to go.
  • Sketch your ideas and experiences. Many of our best ideas fade with the morning dew because we fail to write them down or illustrate them. Make a habit of capturing your thoughts in a notebook, and continue to shape them in a positive direction.
  • Use positive encouraging language. This applies to what you say to others, as well as what you say to yourself. Words have power, so choose positive words to create a positive outcome.
  • Repeat how Lucky you are. A simple mantra recommended by my Aikido teacher Koretoshi Maruyama, is to repeat aloud and often, “I’m Lucky, I’m Lucky, I’m Lucky.” Try it and you will see it works in small and important ways. And you will help others to become Lucky too.

For a summary of the ideas in this article click here to download the OPTIMISM MANDALA

William ReedWilliam Reed specializes in applying practical wisdom from Japanese and Asian culture to solving the problems of modern business and living. He is the author of the Flexible Focus column on Active Garage, the syndicated column Creative Career Path and the book A Zoom Lens for Your life. William is also a Representative Director and Co-Founder of EMC QUEST Corporation, which provides Coaching for Communication and Change, World Class Speaking™, and Accelerated Action with GOALSCAPE™.
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