Productivity / Performance

The downside of looking up

I’d suggest soloists choose hope and positivity over the opposite any day of the week. But at times, optimism bares its teeth and bites you on the butt.

28 April 2014 by

Optimism is generally considered to be a Good Thing and is even associated with greatness. For instance the oft-quoted inspirational-poster fodder sourced from a 1997 Apple ad states, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” I recognise the crazy streak in lots of soloists, and know it can help energise their endeavours.

But sometimes, optimism comes at a cost, namely you vastly underestimate what’s needed to reach a goal and as a result, you are underprepared and exposed.

Part of the popularity of the UK house renovation project show Grand Designs is to watch such falls from grace. “Well Kevin” says the typical couple “We’ve budgeted £100,000 and want to move in by Christmas.” Then as sure as eggs are eggs, you see a shot of the incomplete project and a despondent-looking pair owning up to more than doubling their project time and budget.

Where were their caveats? Here’s a realistic version, “If we don’t come across any unexpected expenses and if the weather is on our side, it could be done for £100,000 by Christmas.”  

"Sometimes, optimism comes at a cost, namely you vastly underestimate what’s needed to reach a goal and as a result, you are underprepared and exposed."

Yet time and again, their optimism trumps realism. In his masterpiece Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman calls this tendency to blowout “the planning fallacy”.

Newbie soloists need to take heed. How long do you think it’ll be before your business is profitable? What needs to be in place for this to happen? If you took your estimated profitability time and doubled it, could you survive that?

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By all means be hopeful for a good outcome, indeed it’s unlikely you’ll get far without hope, but ask yourself: are these projections the likely scenario, or the best case?

I 100% failed to let reality get a look in when I went for day surgery recently. I swaggered in expecting to walk out a few hours later, when in fact I woke postoperatively utterly immobilised and in a world of pain. If I’d anticipated this eventuality, and taken an overnight bag just in case, I wouldn’t have felt so upset by the harshness of my situation.

I’ve since been introduced to the concept of Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. The concept is you need to ‘wear’ each one to competently reach a decision. The ‘hats’ focus on information, emotions, optimistic response, creativity and:

Discernment (Black) – logic applied to identifying reasons to be cautious and conservative.

It is a hat I’ve donned more regularly in recent times, albeit reluctantly. Why? Because I am a natural optimist and proud of it: it’s a quality associated with confident, likeable and resilient people. Over 85% of soloists surveyed in our last Understanding Micro Business survey described themselves as optimistic. And I hope it stays that way!

What I’ve learnt is to stay positive and realistic. In our book (the one where I wrote all the good bits) we suggest you seek counsel from a visionary and a realist, but often I witness proper planning being overlooked in favour of a ‘she’ll be right’ attitude.

Has your optimism blinded you to realities? Or has single-minded positivity propelled your business forward? Do you anticipate worst case scenarios or simply cross that bridge when you come to it?

 

Sam Leader

is a director of Flying Solo and the co-author of Flying Solo - How to go it alone in business.

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