Monday, December 17, 2012

MIT Sloan/NBER: The Importance of Being an Optimist

Several months back, this article was recommended to me, it's from the MIT Sloan Business magazine, which pointed to a research paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper is entitled "The Importance of Being an Optimist: Evidence from Labor Markets", and it was a fascinating read.

This article kicked off an interest in (finally!) starting to do some more reading, and specifically reading positive psychology works. I was just about to post about the last book I read, and realized I'd never posted these last notes as a blog... so posting now, with some headings for easier skimming :)

Optimism is much more than skin-deep
From the intro: "Most of the effect of optimism on economic outcomes stems from the part that is not inherently observed by one’s peers”: I love this. This points directly at a struggle that can plague the enthusiastic person – having a positive attitude through thick and thin is incredibly hard, and requires consistent effort... but, to the untrained eye, an enthusiastic person may come off as naive, “green”, superficial, inexperienced – though the true story may be many more layers deep. I did a talk for the new interns last week and discussed a similar theme: optimism is my chosen strategy, and the optimist (or perhaps, “positive realist”) takes situations as they come in and actively aims for the best possible output. We aren’t unaware of the array of potentially bad outcomes, but choose instead to actively steer the situation hard towards the best possible result.

Hints towards benefits for the kind of Software Engineering work I do
From page 23 (summarized): the optimist has good positive coping skills, allowing them to reframe situations, plan a course of action effectively, and disengage from unrealistic courses of action with relative ease. They mention the rewards of the balance between flexibility and persistence on a given project. That feels like a hint towards Agile software development practices, in general. From page 26: “Life is filled with innumerable occasions in which people must carefully balance competing forces: the desire to abandon a goal when it proves unattainable or undesirable, and the need to stay the course when temporary setbacks occur.” The paper describes how making a choice with uncertain payoffs in the future requires a subjective analysis of different future states of nature. I’ve never thought about my optimism as subjective, but that makes a lot of sense!

Can it be taught?
One thing the paper did not hit is the components of the “contagion” factor. The effect of an inspiring, positive, and involved leader on a team is incredibly powerful. So powerful in fact, that it would seem an effective leader should ideally want to be a dispositional optimist. This makes me wonder if it’s possible to teach these skills; though I’d hope it is, I suspect it’s not.  If we could manufacture this kind of “magic dust” then every leader would be buying it. But perhaps there are some ways to inspire this sort of world-view in people who do not already have an innate disposition for it.

Maybe he/she's born with it?
I liked how they discussed the importance of skills shaped in Early Childhood. My Mom has a degree in Early Childhood Education and was my first school teacher. I attribute the large majority of my success and happiness in life to my two epic parents. Three if you count my older sister too :) I’m getting really excited about research in Positive Psychology and this paper is inspiring me to read more in that area. Effectively measuring these optimism “skills” seems a tough mountain to climb given how subtle they are. They hint at this on pg 26 suggesting that optimism in ubiquitous in a wide range of life decisions – sort of a catalyst in the system – so I wonder if we can truly understand the long term benefits... sounds like time for further reading :)

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