“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”
– William Arthur Ward
Do you know a pessimist? How about an optimist? Do you know any realists? I think it’s safe to say we all know people who fit into each category. In fact it’s quite likely that names pop into your mind the minute you hear the words “optimist, pessimist and realist.” For most of us there are likely times in our lives when we fit into each category. The trick to a productive and rewarding life seems to be spending as much time in the realist category as possible.
A pessimist is a person who tends to see the worst aspect of things or believe that the worst will happen. The truth is, it’s draining to be around a pessimist, and it’s equally exhausting to spend time in our own pessimistic thoughts. Going all the way back to high school, I remember well a teacher who carried a pessimistic attitude towards everything. Whether he was teaching us about chemistry (which seems pretty fact-based to me and almost impossible to be pessimistic about), or any other aspect of our high school lives, he was always “glass half empty.” Granted, as his students we didn’t know the issues that may have caused his pessimistic attitude, but I can tell you no one looked forward to the class, and we were thrilled when the buzzer rang. He even found a way to take the excitement out of anticipating summer holidays.
The optimist is hopeful and confident about the future. No question: It’s way more fun to be around the optimist. As a kid growing up, golf was my passion (and still is), and I’ll never forget how optimistic our club professional was, particularly with the junior golfers that he devoted so much time to. Anyone who plays golf knows that it’s a game that can drive you crazy. A whole lot needs to go right to hit a golf ball in the proper direction. So you can imagine a bunch of junior golfers at various stages of learning, and the wide variety of golf shots that were hit with attitudes in various states of disrepair. I’ll hand it to our former pro – he kept us enthusiastic and optimistic, even in the face of evidence that suggested we were nowhere near high-quality golfers. The fact is most golfers show up with unrealistic optimism. It’s what keeps us coming back.
And then there is the realist – a person who accepts a situation as it is and is prepared to deal with it accordingly. History demonstrates several examples of realists who have accomplished extraordinary things. Winston Churchill comes to mind immediately. His ability to accurately assess Britain’s grave situation and devise a plan of action was exemplary and serves as a benchmark for what a realist can accomplish. It’s important to note that Churchill faced opposition from multiple pessimists who didn’t believe for a moment that his plan would succeed. Interestingly, he was equally criticized at the time by optimists who didn’t comprehend the gravity of the situation.
A more recent example of a realist who acted instantly and appropriately in a critical situation was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the captain of US Airways flight 1549 on January 15, 2009. Just minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport the aircraft hit a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both engines. While immediately trying to restart the engines, the pilot assessed the overall situation in mere seconds and ultimately took the realistic approach. He had to focus on his available options, and he concluded that landing in the Hudson River was the only viable chance to save lives. He remained calm beyond all human expectations and expertly and realistically did what few aviation experts would say was even possible. We all know the conclusion; he saved every life on board.
Very few of us will face situations as demanding as defeating Hitler to win World War II or landing an aircraft without engine power. Yet we can learn great lessons in both our personal and professional lives from these individuals who were neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but rather incredibly realistic. They truly had the ability to assess the situation so as to avoid defeat through pessimistic thinking, and equally escape disaster caused by optimistically steering clear of important facts. Rather, they were able to calmly see the situation and then execute realistically.