The Design Thinker Blog

Theory, practice, and stories from the field. 


Optimism, is it really great?

Jun 05, 2023

If you are going to do a thing, it helps to believe that it is possible to do the said thing.


When I first started my research to understand design thinking capabilities, I was surprised to find how often optimism is talked about in design theory. To be honest I was skeptical so imagine my surprise when optimism emerged in both the quantitative and qualitative data. This is what we researchers call triangulation, it is basically research speak for you can believe this is valid and real.


When I talk about the importance of optimism in designing solutions, I am often met with the same level of skepticism I had when I started on my research journey. This should be a comfort in a way because at least I know I'm not the only one.


Once I was asked, isn’t optimism dangerous? What if I was optimistic that I could fly and got on that roof and tried to fly? I’d kill myself?


Another common question I get is, isn’t there a risk that when we are optimistic we overlook the challenges, the flaws? Isn’t this a matter of seeing through rose-colored glasses?


Questions like this demonstrate that optimism is a misunderstood concept. To be clear if you think you can fly and try to prove it by getting on the roof - this is not optimism, this is delusional. However, if you believe that there should be a device that enables humans to fly, and you take action to create such a device - this is what I call engaging optimistically.  Notice here that what you believe is that there should be "something" that enables humans to fly, not that humans "can" fly. It is a subtle difference but an important difference.


To engage optimistically requires first to see the flaws, and what is not working, and to recognize the constraints you are working within. It is when we understand the broken bits, where the cracks are, that we can truly begin to believe that there must be a better way. Here are a few excerpts from my research that help to illustrate this:

Optimism is my superpower it is what allows me to show up every day, to stand by patients as they fight the scariest battle of their lives, even after seeing so many lose that battle. I have to keep showing up, I have to keep fighting for the science, the medicine, the access to care and optimism is the thing that lets me do that. ~ Meri a healthcare professional who works with cancer patients


Companies bring me in to help them transform their culture. I feel like I’ve seen it all, the toxic behaviors that go unaddressed, the incompetent leadership…every company says they want to create a great culture, but very few are willing to put in the hard work to create it. Sometimes I wonder, what’s even the point of what I do. But I am optimistic, I have this belief that people deserve to work in a fun and safe environment, I owe it to them to keep trying…so I keep believing that change is possible, it’s what keeps me going. ~ Leah an organizational development consultant


Notice that both Meri and Leah are fully aware of the challenges in their environment, their eyes are fully open as to the challenges they are facing, yet they keep showing up, they keep working to make things better.


My research is specific to design thinking capabilities and how they show up in complex problem-solving. However, the findings from my research are very much in line with others who have studied optimism. Martin Seligman a psychologist who work focuses on learned optimism shows optimism can improve the quality of one's life. Learnt optimism is the view that one has the potential to transform their situation, in contrast, learned helplessness is the view that one has no control over their situation so they are not able to change it. Seligman's work also goes on to show that optimism can be learned through practice.


Tali Sharot a neuroscientist has studied what is called the optimism bias, which is the mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are much lower than our chances of experiencing positive ones. In her TED Talk, she uses the example of divorce rates, 41% of first marriages end in divorce, but if you ask newlywed couples if they will make it, everyone one of them will answer "yes". Of course, statistically, this cannot be, so why do we do it? Optimism Bias enables us to believe that our situation will turn out better than it did for others. It is estimated that about 80% of the population has an optimism bias. While on the surface, it might seem like optimism bias allows us to make poor decisions, Sharot's research also shows that our optimism bias also causes us to try harder. What's more Sharot's research also shows that optimists live longer, happier, and healthier lives than pessimists.


Both Seligman and Sharot's work help to explain why optimism is so prevalent in both design theory and evidenced in design research. As Herbert Simon the American Political Scientist said, design work is all about transforming a current situation into a better one. If we want to transform a current situation the starting point has to be believing that a better one is possible, if we didn't, why would we bother trying? This point is demonstrated by Seligman's work, those who believe they can change their situation work to find a way to change it. As supported by Sharot's work, those that believe better is possible try harder to make it happen.


So, to answer the question of optimism, is it really that great? Yes. Yes, it is. To design solutions to wicked problems for which there are no easy answers, and to overcome challenges where the odds seem stacked against us, optimism is a necessity.


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