What exactly is optimism? And how does it aid peak performance? Let’s unpack why optimism is your new secret weapon.
Optimism can be a secret weapon in business and in life. But what exactly is optimism? And why does it matter?
As a professional speaker specialising in boosting resilience, courageous leadership and achieving our greatest goals, I highlight the power of optimism in my keynotes. Optimism has been coined as a secret weapon by multiple leadership experts and for good reason. It can be the difference between giving up in the face of adversity or tapping into your self-belief to keep moving forward, or upwards in my case.
It was during my decade-long quest to achieve my first world record – the youngest person in the world to climb the highest mountain and the highest volcano on every continent – that I learned about the true power of optimism. After 13 successful expeditions, I had one to go. I had to reach the summit of Ojos del Salado on the Argentina-Chile border. Not only is it the highest volcano in the world, I was also racing against a Russian climber vying for the same world record.
Despite my meticulous preparation and planning, almost everything went wrong. After getting trapped in a tent for three days due to a snowstorm, my local guide pulled the pin and left me high and not-so-dry. Instead of giving up, I texted my boss from the mountain (I was juggling a day job throughout my quest) and said, “I might be a little late getting back to work.”
After finding another local guide to help get me back to the mountain, I set off for the summit in complete darkness (that’s normal) and got completely lost (not so normal). Exhausted and seriously concerned, I took a break to assess the situation. I’d been climbing for 36 hours. I was alone. It was now the off-season and there was no one else on the mountain. I was on the wrong side of an ice field full of penitentes (thin blades of hardened snow and ice) and I was attempting to reach the top of the highest volcano on Earth, a summit with wind speeds and temperatures similar to Everest. As some would say, “FML”.
As first light hit the mountain, I was optimistic that if I could just navigate past or through the icefield, the path to the summit would become clearer. I can do this, I thought, what’s my next best move? I focused on small incremental steps. At times, I was doing one small move then resting for 10 minutes.
One move. Rest. One move. Rest. And repeat.
Back at home, my Dad was following every one of those moves on a GPS tracker. Initially, he thought the tech was broken because I was moving so slowly. Something was clearly wrong! Being a million miles away, he felt panicked and helpless but he kept watching that tracker, willing me on.
Thousands of small steps later, I achieved my first world record when I reached the summit. And don’t worry, I called my Dad on my satellite phone as soon as I had safely descended.
When the odds were stacked against me and the stakes were high, I chose to believe that my training and mindset would get me through. I chose to believe in a positive outcome despite obstacles. I chose to be optimistic.
Optimism isn’t unconditional positivity. It’s about self-belief and the ability to keep moving forward despite the obstacles.
There are a lot of misconceptions about optimism. When you think of an optimistic person you may envision someone with a beaming smile who routinely discounts people’s negative feelings with an annoying “Chin Up Charlie” response. That’s not it. Optimism is defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something.” It’s not about being unconditionally positive and upbeat. Life throws us many curveballs and it’s ok to feel overwhelmed, down and fed up from time to time. It’s human. Optimism is about how we view and react to challenges and opportunities, tap into our potential, and process obstacles so we can make incremental progress.
We all have the capacity to fill the half-empty glass, or at least top it up.
It’s easy to be optimistic when things are going well. It’s when we face adversity that we need to tap into our optimism and self-belief. Like resilience, optimism can be easier for some people to cultivate than others. There is a lot of debate about whether optimism is intrinsic or developed. I believe it’s a bit of both – that we are all born with different levels of intrinsic optimism but are able to develop it no matter our circumstances.
In psychology, learned optimism is a concept that says we can change our attitude and behaviours by recognising and challenging our negative self-talk. Learned optimism is the opposite of learned helplessness whereby people believe they’re incapable of changing their circumstances after repeatedly experiencing a stressful event. While I don’t profess to be an expert on positive psychology, I do believe that we are all capable of elevating our mindset and reframing the way we view ourselves and the world around us.
Your sense of optimism can be heightened or hindered by your environment.
I am not always optimistic. My optimism and self-belief waver depending on my circumstances and environment. When I was working in IT in Switzerland (as close to the mountains as I could get), I had an intimidating boss who micromanaged me. For four long years, I dreaded going to work every day. I would sit at my desk with my boss breathing down my neck thinking, Is this really my life? I eventually scraped together the courage to find a new job and everything changed. I had a supportive boss who valued me and shared my love of mountaineering. I gained better work-life balance and started to enjoy my work again.
I think we’ve all found ourselves in environments that threaten our wellbeing and compromise our self-belief. For optimism to return, we need to seek out environments that strengthen our self-belief and encourage an optimistic mindset.
Small wins can harness your internal optimist, no matter how sloth-like they are.
During my corporate career and extreme adventures, I’ve had to harness my optimism and self-belief to achieve big goals. Just like when I was achieving my first world records, my current sense of optimism has grown through small wins. When I started motivational speaking, I was booking one gig a month. I could barely believe it when I eventually reached six bookings in a single month. It’s hard not to be optimistic about that!
The Power of Optimism in Reaching Your Peak
It’s far easier to be optimistic when things are going well in our business. It’s when things go haywire that we need to focus on harnessing our optimism just like I did while lost, alone and imperilled on Ojos del Salado in the Andes. If your optimism is MIA, try to focus on your abilities and your expertise. Think about what you’ve achieved in the past and use that to empower you to take one small step forward, then another and another. As you accumulate small wins, you might just look up and realise that you’re on top of the world.
What adventure can we take you on next?
Daniel Bull is a three-time world record-breaking adventurer and inspirational motivational speaker. He specialises in empowering leaders and teams to become more resilient, fulfilled and successful, whatever challenges they face.
Focusing on boosting resilience, courageous leadership, teamwork, mindset and peak performance, Daniel inspires audiences with his passion and authentic presence. His spectacular footage combined with the latest digital technology creates an exhilarating and highly interactive experience.
As a keynote speaker who’s headlined live, hybrid and virtual conferences, Daniel inspires audiences to find their own summits and tackle them with confidence.