Reality Check: Adaptability and Optimism

A commentator on morning radio recently said, “The world needs a dose of optimism now.” Maybe that’s true. Optimism can help us turn around, look up, and find hope again.
Are you a natural optimist? Some people seem to be. They can respond to almost any event from a “glass half full” perspective and extract any possible positives from it.
For others, optimism doesn’t come so naturally. We have to really work at it to find an upside, especially for difficult events. We immediately see potential downsides—everything that can possibly go wrong. Risks just speak to us.
There are benefits, of course, to both outlooks. The cheerful optimists might forget to guard against dangers, while the pessimists can’t even see the sun shine without remembering that soon it will be nightfall.
As I was thinking about hope and optimism, an old quality tool came to mind, popularized by quality guru, W. Edwards Deming. Dr. Deming promoted a continuous improvement process referred to as Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA).
Essentially, here’s the process. First make a plan (P). Then, do (D) a small-scale activity. Check (C) the result. What happened? If the result is to your liking, then act (A) to apply it on a larger scale. If the result wasn’t what you hoped, act (A) by cycling back to the planning stage. Start the cycle again, trying something different.
Everybody knows the saying, “If you keep doing what you are doing, you’ll keep getting what you were getting.” However, it’s hard to change what we are doing, isn’t it? We have inertia. We already know how to do what we’ve been doing. We might not want to take the risk of trying something new. Deming’s cycle makes changes by doing limited experiments, thus limiting the risk.
The key to the success of this model is the Check step, which is much like self-evaluation in Reality Therapy. Self-evaluation can take many forms, but the question, “How has this been working for you?” captures the essence. We plan future actions based on the answer to that question.
What does this have to do with optimism? It reflects how humans adapt and apply their ingenuity, often quite remarkably, to wide varieties of circumstances and events.
Adaptability may be easier to see when times are tougher. When everything is going well, there’s no great incentive to make a change. But when things are going poorly, humans adapt. They invent. They make improvements.
Do you find it hard to believe that we are up to the many adaptation challenges? Try this thought experiment. Take a look at your own life—have you adapted to changed situations?
For example, over the course of your life, have you ever had a change in your financial situation (either positive or negative)? Did you adapt by changing your spending habits?
Have you ever moved to a different community? Changed workplaces? Gone through a change in a significant relationship, such as marriage or breakup?
As I’m not Pollyanna, I know there’s no guarantee that our adaptations will necessarily be helpful ones. When faced with a negative event, like depleted finances or a relationship breakup, sometimes people respond destructively, with drug use, alcohol use, or other unhelpful responses. We do have choice after all, and with choice comes the freedom and opportunity to make poor decisions as well as good ones.
However, my basis for optimism is that if we pay attention and learn from our experience, and the experiences of others, we can improve our choice-making. When we use the information and feedback from the Check stage of Plan-Do-Check-Act, we can adapt. We will adapt.
Does the world need a dose of optimism? Do you think things are going downhill? Or are our brightest days ahead?

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