Why Success Requires Pessimistic Optimism
When it comes to your outlook on your long-term business success, is it better to be an optimist or a pessimist? Researchers have long studied this question.
"The answer is sort of 'yes,'" Bob Sutton, a Stanford University professor of management and science engineering, said. He spoke Tuesday at Office Optional, a San Francisco-based event focused on remote working strategies that drew about 500 attendees.
"People who are good at scaling and long-term planning in general have a really weird combination of optimism and pessimism," Sutton said. Take Steve Jobs who had a grand vision for the way that Apple products would change millions of lives. Yet Jobs fretted on a daily basis over how to get the smallest product details right.
"The best kinds of people -- and it's very important for scaling and anything that you're doing -- are what I would call 'happy worriers,'" Sutton said.
Granted, not everyone naturally maintains such a balanced disposition. That's why Sutton advised assembling a well-balanced team. If you have an employee who is unreasonably worried about everything, make sure he's paired up with someone who's impossibly optimistic.
Toward the end of his talk, Sutton fielded questions from viewers watching the livestream and using a chat tool to send in questions. One person wanted Sutton to clarify if he had said "happy worriers" or "happy warriors."
"I said 'happy worriers,' but 'happy warriors' are good, too. So let's talk about happy warriors," Sutton said. "When it comes to creative work, one of the most important things you can do is learn how to fight."
Sutton said past research has shown that the best creative teams are skilled at fighting productively. They know which conflicts are worth battling over, and they know when to stop fighting in order to join hands and get something done.
Intel is perhaps the company best-known for cultivating this skill in its employees. There, workers are actually trained in "constructive confrontation," Sutton said.
"Having taught at Stanford now for 30 years … one of the things I think that we're failing even in our elite education -- and we're failing at Stanford although we're trying -- is teaching people to fight constructively," Sutton said. "And to me it's really an important thing."