What can optimism do for you?

Optimism happens to be our brand and a philosophical approach to life. But it can also be a powerful leadership strategy for your business. In the coming months, I’ll be writing about our company’s experience spreading the power of optimism and how optimism plays out in the business world.

When I say optimism, I’m not talking about irrational exuberance or "blind" optimism. I'm talking about intelligent optimism. I’m talking about an approach to decision-making that acknowledges both good and bad in most circumstances, yet chooses to focus on the good because that is the smarter use of resources. Many of the issues business leaders struggle with--including management, creativity, financial performance, and personal-professional balance--get easier when we approach them with optimism.

It sounds simple. And it is. My brother John and I never claimed we were introducing something new or revelatory in 1994 when we started selling Life is good T-shirts on street corners in our hometown of Boston. We were just trying to avoid getting jobs. And we were having fun: traveling, hanging out together, meeting new people. Though we didn’t think of it this way at the time, we were actually living what would become the Life is good motto: Do what you like. Like what you do.

This was happening during a recession and the Persian Gulf War. Boston was experiencing a high rate of urban violence. TV news and the daily papers were constantly blasting stories about how bad things were. Over time all that bad news damages the psyche. It makes people pessimistic and reinforces the common misconception that things now are worse than ever. John and I wondered if people would be open to celebrating some of the good things in life. Since the media always seemed determined to tell us what went wrong today, we set out to be the brand that celebrates what went right today.

Our agent of change was Jake: a simple stick-figure with a very high ratio of grin to head. Jake proclaimed that life is good, but at first he didn’t really explain why life is good. That insight came to us from the early retailers who sold our products. One called us a few weeks after she started offering the shirts and asked whether Jake (he didn’t have a name at the time) liked ice cream. We asked why. She said, “Because life is pretty good when you’re eating ice cream.” So Jake with an ice cream cone became our second Life is good T-shirt. Then another retailer called to point out that life is good when you’re riding a mountain bike. Shirt number three. And so on. Every time somebody told us what makes them happy, our company grew. We learned early that our customers were co-authoring the story of our brand. 

Jake became a superhero, whose power is his disposition. He isn’t waiting for wealth and fame to make him happy. Instead, he is grateful for what he has today, and he is happy today. He has enough wisdom to know that in life the little things are often the big things.

 So that’s our story. Twenty years later John and I have successfully avoided getting jobs, and Life is good is now a $100 million lifestyle brand dedicated to spreading the power of optimism and helping kids in need. Over the years we’ve lived through some tough times. And our approach has been to deal with those tough times but not dwell on them. We’ve learned that what you focus on grows. Building a company is fun because we focus on what’s fun about building a company. For us, Life is good has been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I'm looking forward to sharing with you specific insights about the power of optimism in building a business. If you are already an optimist, I will strengthen your practices. If you are a skeptic about the value of optimism, I will change your perspective.

For now, I’ll close with an overview of how disposition influences leadership:

Pessimistic leaders focus on obstacles. They make lists of reasons ideas won't work. They waste resources worrying. Pessimism is unattractive. It is a turn-off to employees and team members. Pessimism is corrosive. Pessimistic leaders drive cultures that fear failure. Pessimism causes close-mindedness, which shuts down creativity and eventually kills businesses.

Realistic leaders are better than pessimistic leaders. But they lack imagination, and that limits progress.

Optimistic leaders focus on opportunities. Optimism is magnetic. Optimism enables open-mindedness, and open-mindedness enables collaboration, creativity, and problem solving. Optimists invent solutions that become genuine points of difference in the market. And points of difference in the market build healthy businesses.

Oh, and did I mention that optimists enjoy their work more and have a lot more fun?