The pessimist complains about the wind the optimist expects it to change the realist adjusts the sails… (William Arthur Ward)
There are many contradicting views about realism, and specifically on how it relates to optimism and pessimism:
- Realism is a middle ground, a kind of average between optimism and pessimism, as if it is a 50% of the available range of views. To find this approach, outline the optimist one, the pessimist one – and do your maths.
- Realism is somewhere in the range, but not necessarily in the middle. Like Left and Right wing political parties, are not equally represented by a “Center” party. For instance the UK Left Labor and Right Conservatives would not necessarily agree on the views of the Liberal Democrats. Realism in that case cannot be easily predicted by the optimist or pessimist views on a certain issue, but is expected to sit nicely within.
- Realism is a moderation or refinement of one of those approaches, sitting closely to one of them, predominantly pessimism. Even if colors seem to be on a different level than black and white, the fact of the matter is that physically colors blend to the extreme produce white as a scientist would tell you. Interestingly, a kid would rather view the opposite, showing you his black Crayon and absence of a white one as a proof. So perhaps Realism is basically an upgraded, politically correct, psychologically healthy form of plain pessimism? There are many people accused of being pessimist, that tend to justify that by saying they are being realists, so clearly there is some case for that approach.
- Realism for the most part is unrelated (or only loosely related) to both optimism and pessimism. Surely it has a distinctive view on a certain issue like optimist and pessimist views may have, but it cannot be combined from an optimist and/or pessimist approaches. It’s like saying you can characterize middle US Wichita Kansas from traits of Eastern New Yorker City and Western Los Angeles. Realism is an entirely on a different layer, incomparable to Optimism and Pessimism.
To explore this further, let’s imagine the following scenery:
Picture a middle of a sunny day, approaching summer, in your room. The good news is that you are actually in a cool room inside a great hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. The bad news is that you are stuck there due to flight cancelation, and have been so for a while. The reality, is that this was indeed, real.
Now we can push the boundaries of each of the approaches, and see where it takes us, perhaps assisting us in clarifying which of the above approaches make more sense here, and in general.
So we are in a sunny resort, in a tourist heaven. Not a shabby starting point, I may say. Let’s assume you are in your chosen perfect conditions (alone, with your spouse, with your family – you name it!). We can also assume you got there for business, and now that you are stuck and finished your business, you have a great opportunity for a little vacation. You even do not have associated costs, as between your work organizing the trip and the travel agents, things are taken care of. Why not give you perfect weather of a no rain, pre summer season? (You may argue that any sunny weather is perfect for a Brit, but this particular season is amazing). You are also surrounded by few friends who are staying in the hotel as well due to the flights conditions. In the hotel itself, I forget the annual conference of Elite Models that is hosted in your hotel, adding some pizzazz to your wonderful stay. Moreover, due to financial landscape, shopping costs are extremely low so you can buy presents for all your family, friends, and occasional people you have just meet that smiled to you (not necessarily beautiful young women you want to pick up). And lastly, yes: you love Thai massage, Tom Yum Goong, and Pineapple cocktails.
Now, you may ask why we can take those assumptions, it’s unfair and was not in the scenery brief. Simples. Optimism is all about taking the positive view, embracing the potential that exist in the situation. All you need is yellow lens, highlighting for you what can be done that will make you happy. Feel free to add anything you see, it is after all individual. However, you do need to train yourself to see those gems, as they might be hidden in a riff ruff of…
Well, things may not be as they appeared above, to the untrained eye: it’s not that your flight back from this very short trip was canceled; it’s a Volcano eruption that created dust over Europe that prevents any flights in that all regions for the foreseeable future. You warned everything that listened that the world climate is choking at us, and expected in 2013 we will have severe bursts of disasters. Even you did not know it would be sooner.
Your spouse is at home is pregnant in her last trimester, and is expected to give birth while you are away, and you feel as if she is crying for you every phone call. Not that you manage to contact her easily, as due to the crisis there is peak telecommunications usage.
Back to Bangkok, the political climate becomes tense as the red shirts protest against the government. You are afraid of walking in the streets with the few garments you brought (which happened to include a red short and bag) is risky so you try to avoid any travel. In fact several people recently died from the political collisions in Bangkok near your whereabouts, and most other hotels shut down so you cannot join their facilities (your own hotel is under reconstructions so a lot of amenities are not operational), so you are advised to stay put anyhow. Your favorite hotel restaurant closed (due to the financial crisis), and you need to select between a too spicy Thai food you cannot eat, and a crappy European food like Italian named and lookalike Pizza or Pasta that other than that does not resemble anything you like, not to mention you make a better version of it at your own kitchen, or a watery French onion soup (which includes pale onions, water and few pieces of bread – so can legally if we stretch things a little bit, be considered as a an onion soup) that you cannot anyhow eat as it’s much too warm. In fact there are 40 degrees outside and you burn even if you decide to enter the crowded pool full of stranded families and pensioners. It’s such a shame the Elite model annual conference was canceled due to political warnings in Thailand, on the last minute.
You do not complain, as you expected all of it.
You hate to fly (just recently the Polish prime minister died from a plane crash, and your fear of flights just increased yet to another level) and knew those planes cannot be trusted. Your pale skin hates so much sun, so you stay indoors. They shoot outside anyhow, so you better off keep low profile. Anyhow the pollution in Bangkok is so bad for your Asthma, that you prefer the ventilated air. You do have internet in your room, and work obligations you may miss, so you use the time to write those specifications you needed to. Occasional disconnections, just take few minutes to reconnect, and your old laptop battery (yes indeed it’s a Stinkpad) warms to death every few hours, so you take yet another shower (you need to cool the heat from yourself as well) to let it cool before you proceed. The time zone differences make it hard for you to communicate with your team, so you need to achieve more things yourself.
Whatever happens, you are in (a false) control. You planned for it, and took this into account. You may not use everything you prepared like the heavy sweaters you brought (in case it becomes cold) but you did use some like the extra credit cards you activated (as you ran out of money due to the long stay away). Overall things are going as you have predicted for the most part. Perhaps nothing can fool you, other the yourself being the fool.
One may argue the pessimist view actually shows biblical Ayub alike mishaps, and is incredibly misfortunate where the optimist view is very much happy go lucky. Are those indeed different stories, or can they all co-exist like in a parallel multi universe paradigm? Moreover, where is Realism? What really happens? You already knew there is more than one answer to it. In fact all the approaches may work, depending on how you decide to look at things.
There are certainly averaging views, as well as leaning toward Pessimism or Optimism on certain aspects. Let’s examine few.
You clearly want to get home and feel stuck and may delay more than expected so circumstances were forced on you. This is a key accusation against optimism – that it lacks connectivity to what really happens, it’s a vision not the things as they are, you cannot play all in your head as there are things beyond your control.
At the same time, you certainly can enjoy your forced stay. Focusing on the opportunities this change generates, may lead you to some swimming in the mornings (desirable in 40 degrees, and less so in rainy cold UK), or focusing on some reports without distractions you can finally find peace of mind and accelerate on, or using the APAC time zone to bond better with your local colleagues you were detached from due to the time difference, or even buying some groceries in a local shop to make your own authentic Tom Yum Goong once at home, rather than make it from the paste (from which it comes still pretty darn good).
So perhaps realism is about choice – facing the circumstances rather than ignoring them, and building on top of the advantages they present?
Summary (or saying things again)
So essentially I view Realism as a view on Change Management, which is a strategy focused on extracting the potential that exists in the situation like often done by Optimists, even if those changes were not planned or predicted as some pure Pessimists are good at when they keep outlining those dark prophecies ahead of time.
Realism is a form of adapting to change, and as our world throws constant changes at us – it’s a method of handling ourselves in that world. Many before us tried to change the world, and it is not easy. At least, not as easy as reforming the picture we have of that glorious world. Realism is hence a forming guidance.
So to me, to be a realist you just need to react or plan positively to the circumstances that are laid in front of you even if they do not match the best possible scenario you might have envisioned. It is a form of gestalt of Pessimism and Optimism, varying the weights depending on what is at stake and what the situation is – but it lies on a different tier, similar to how a seemingly 3D cube can be drawn by two dimensional lines, even if the cube presumably exists outside of the surface governed by those lines.
Why did I write this post? Sometimes, when you are stuck in places you did not plan to be stuck at, things that you did not plan get written.