Urgent Optimism

I filled up my car with gas a couple days ago, and the total was over $100. I avoid most news outlets and completely ignore social media, but you cannot escape the stories about tragic shootings happening one after another. We are being told daily that environmental shifts are going to make much of our current land unfit for human habitation. There is an abundance of bad news, and the future seems bleak.

We are incredibly poor at predicting or preparing for the future. Yet, where we are today and what we are doing can radically impact whether the future is a series of problems to be survived or a smorgasbord of opportunities to be seized.

Urgent optimism is a mindset that includes mental flexibility, realistic hope, and future power. While none of us can actually “see” the future, we can practice looking into the future and seeing what might be. We won’t always be right, but we will be right far more often than someone who sits in the present hoping things won’t change too much.

Mental flexibility, or cognitive flexibility, is about evaluating strategies and generating novel solutions. Novel is the key word here. Most of us are good at repeating what we already know how to do, but if the environment changes, our behavior may need to change too. The ability to generate a new solution or strategy is essential to an optimistic future. There are several things I can do to increase my mental flexibility. 

  • Doing something I already know how to do but doing it a different way. I can drive home from work using a different route. I can try new foods. I can change the time of day I exercise (I need to exercise consistently first…). I can sit in a different chair. It doesn’t have to be spectacularly different, just different.
  • Trying new challenges and seeking new experiences. This works best if it’s both mental and physical. I can try dancing, martial arts, painting, sculpting, skydiving, or skiing to name just a few. I can learn a new language, travel to a new place, or even change jobs (well, maybe not that one). The most important thing is to be creative and do something new.
  • Meeting new people. This one is hard for me, but I’m game. My cognitive flexibility will improve the more I expose myself to people who are different from me and experience their views, cultures, and ideas. Not only does my cognitive flexibility improve, but also my moral compass on right and wrong. Let’s meet some new people.

Realistic hope starts with looking for clues about what might be changing. Do a Google search and look for “future of”, “innovative”, “experimental”, and other words that indicate shifts in the baseline. Then take those clues and imagine 10 years from now if that is the new normal. What will people need? What will they be buying? Where will they live? What will they be doing?

For this to really work you must be a little ridiculous. Imagine what could never happen and then think about what will be true if it does happen. Just a little over three years ago, none of us were thinking that countries would shut their borders, you wouldn’t be able to get a seat in a restaurant without health papers, and it would be against the law to visit your grandmother. Yet, all this and more happened. The future may be ridiculous in today’s terms.

These mental exercises make the unknown of the future seem a little more “known.” As we practice seeing many different crazy futures, we become more comfortable with the reality of continuous change, and we start to find hope in the possibilities that exist alongside the difficulties.

Finally, I like to remember how different things are now and how I have successfully (more or less) navigated the changes encountered so far. Realizing that I have already done this many times over gives me confidence in my future power to do it again. This one is less complicated than the other two, but twice as important. I can meet the needs of a changing world head-on and find the opportunities it presents because I have done it before. All these things apply equally well to communities (and companies). As an organization, we must practice cognitive flexibility by beginning to test new ideas and rewarding people for trying. We must foster realistic hope by accepting that the ridiculous might happen and considering this as we plan strategy. Finally, we must give ourselves future power by retelling the stories of how our organization has overcome all the changes we have encountered, remembering both the wild successes and the failures. Our outlook must have a sense of urgency as things never stop moving, and we must be optimistic as there is always opportunity. Urgent optimism, therefore, is The Kimray Way.