The Power of Micro-Optimism

Once upon a time there were two towns: Erehwmorf (“fromwhere” backwards) and Erehwot (“towhere” backwards) and a highway ran between them. On this highway was an espresso stand, and the barista would chat with travelers who stopped for a grande, half-caff, double-shot, non-fat soy latte with a splash of almond milk and a pinch of nutmeg, stirred counterclockwise. Or maybe something else.

“I’m headed to Erehwot,” said one customer, “and I’m wondering what the people there are like?”

“How were they back in Erehwmorf?” asked the barista.

“They were terrible. Rude. Cheat you at the slightest opportunity. Just generally miserable to be around,” said the customer.

“I expect that’s how you’ll find folks in Erehwot too.”

A little while later our barista was chatting with another customer. “I’m headed to Erehwot,” they said, “and I’m wondering what the people there are like?”

“How were they back in Erehwmorf?” asked the barista.

“They were wonderful! Helpful. Friendly. You couldn’t ask for nicer folks. Hated to leave!” said the customer.

“I expect that’s how you’ll find folks in Erehwot too.”

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The words “pessimist” and “optimist” make it sound as if there are only two ways to be, but in fact there’s an entire spectrum between the two, ranging from “utter destruction is right around the corner,” to “world peace and the end of all want are nearly upon us.” Reality is probably somewhere in between.

The problem is, predicting the future is about as reliable as predicting the weather. Weatherpersons do a good job of predicting the weather a week or so out, but farther than that things get increasingly murky, and frequently their predictions go completely off the rails. Same with trying to predict the future generally.

Meanwhile, both mega-pessimism and mega-optimism have their problems. If one is mega-pessimistic, then there’s no point in doing anything. Might as well go climb under a rock and wait for the inevitable. Meanwhile, mega-optimistic can be problematic too. If you think “world peace and the end of all want are nearly upon us,” those are enormous issues too big for little old me to do anything about. Someone else has to make those grand things happen. So the temptation is to do nothing and just wait for this Promised Land.

In between I think there’s a sweet spot which I call “micro-optimistic.” That is, wherever I am, I can make things just a little better. For myself, for my family, my colleagues, everyone whose lives I touch in my micro-corner of the world. Micro-optimism is the belief that there’s always SOMETHING I can do to make things micro-better. That frame of mind makes all the difference.

If you’re that kind of person, if you’re always looking for how to improve things even a little, that makes you a micro-leader. At work, you’re the person who is always finding ways, usually small but sometimes big, that make everything run a little better. What employer doesn’t want that? At home, who doesn’t want a family member that’s always trying to make things micro-better? In both the hard and good times?

And since there are always micro-things we can do to make things micro-better, there’s no excuse not to do them.

Here are just a few examples of what ‘micro-optimism’ might look like:

* Being considerate. Figuratively speaking, let’s everyone hold open the door for everyone – let’s have small acts of chivalry all around!

* Calm down and slow down – just a little. On the freeway, at the grocery store, everywhere.

* Listen to people. We have two ears and only one mouth. Make that your goal of how much listening vs. talking you do — two minutes of listening for every minute of talking. Bonus points if you can listen to someone with whom you disagree, and just try to understand their point of view a micro-bit better. Not embrace it — just walk in their shoes for a microsecond.

* Try micro-improvements on things you’d like to change about yourself. Overeating? Make your portions a little smaller. Need more exercise? Park a little farther away from the store.  Of course, seriously tackling diet and exercise is much better. But micro-improvements at the very least are a good place to start.

Now is that time of year for the annual ritual of New Year resolutions that generally don’t work out. Better are micro-resolutions that we really can keep! If you’re alert to micro-improvements, they’ll present themselves constantly. And since they’re easy to implement and keep doing over the long haul, before you know it they’ll make a mega-difference.

William Zeitler

This story was first published on SubStack.

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