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The Crucial Difference Between Optimism And Hope

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Early in my career, I had an a-ha moment that made me feel silly in retrospect and smarter from then on. I realized that I had been using the words “skepticism” and “pessimism” interchangeably—and that was hurting me. 

After all, “not taking things at face value until you verify them,” which is at the heart of skepticism, is important for critical thinking. Meanwhile, “believing that things will go badly” is only useful sometimes. After learning the difference, I realized that having skepticism and optimism at the same time can be quite useful.

But recently, I realized that my parsing of the word “optimism” wasn’t done. I had a new epiphany about attitudinal isms while exploring the work of Ryerson philosopher Michael Milona on the subtle differences between optimism and “hope.” And I’ve become convinced that this difference can help us even more as leaders.

The Difference Between Optimism and Hope

Let’s say that you love a particular sports team that you know has a low chance of winning. They’ve got a game coming up, and you decide to watch it. 

Why would you watch a team you know will probably lose? 

It’s not because you want to see them lose. Because you hope they’ll pull off a surprise win—even though you’re not optimistic they will.

When I watch Formula One, I root for Sergio Perez. Not because I think he realistically is going to beat seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton. But because I’m hoping this time he might.

That’s why Perez keeps racing, too. (And by the way, last season, he did win one Grand Prix!)

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The difference between hope and optimism, in other words, is about how we see the odds. If you think the odds are in your favor, you’re optimistic. Things will probably go how you want them to.

If the odds are against you—but there’s still a chance—you can have hope.

And that hope does a couple of powerful things.

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The Instrumental Value of Hope

One of the most fascinating books I’ve read in the last decade is called The Hypomanic Edge. In it, Dr. John Gartner argues that a disproportionate number of successful trailblazers—geographic explorers and entrepreneurs in particular—are driven by a belief that they can beat the odds. Why would a smart person bet that stacked dice will roll in their favor anyway? According to Gartner, it’s literally a mild form of mania. (Perhaps you can relate a little, if you’re reading this.)

We might describe the result of a mild amount of mania, hope. 

Anyone who’s ever started a company or rooted for the New York Jets knows a thing about having hope in the face of long odds. When you open up a restaurant, statistics are not in your favor. You hope you’ll make it anyway.

But the key thing about hope—especially when we’re being deliberate about it—is that it’s only irrational to have hope if you don’t do anything different as a result of it. The “instrumental value of hope,” as Milona wrote in a recent white paper for The Templeton Foundation, is that it motivates us to work harder, be more clever, and generally do what it takes to try to overcome the odds.

If you’re optimistic that you’ll succeed, you’ll have less motivation to find an innovative way to do so. If you’re pretty sure your chances of succeeding are bad, but you hope to succeed anyway, you’ll keep your eyes open for opportunities that you might not notice otherwise.

Of course, hope can also make us complacent. It feels good to hope things will work out, and that can be enough to let us pass the responsibility for action onto someone else. But when hope hinges on us doing something different, that’s where the magic can happen.

In other words, when hope is all we've got, we're forced to use lateral thinking and intellectual humility—or else lose.

Without Optimism, We Can Still Make It. But Without Hope, We're Cooked

Perhaps the most powerful effect of hope is felt when it’s gone. When we lose hope—we decide that there’s no chance that we’ll get an outcome we want—we lose motivation. And for good reason. If there’s no hope, then why try?

As leaders, understanding the nuances of hope and optimism can help us give our people confidence in us. It’s unnerving to follow a leader who’s blind to the odds. Great leaders point out when the odds are against them—and then point out that there’s hope to overcome them.

And you know, if I were to place a bet on one leader over another leader, I’d put my money on the one who knows the only way to win will be by being scrappy. Because in the long run that’s where innovation happens.