Optimism gets a bad reputation in times of crisis, precisely when it's needed the most.
Rational, data-driven optimists don't ignore serious problems, but by celebrating small wins they drive progress.
In his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Crisis, Gates says that climate change will be catastrophic for humans. When I read those words, my heart sank. But in the very next paragraph, Gates reports the good news: "Everything I've learned about climate and technology makes me optimistic that ... we can avoid a climate catastrophe."
In a recent episode of 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper had the same reaction as I had. His face grew concerned as Gates described the magnitude of the climate problem. Cooper, shaking his head, said, "Solving the crisis sounds impossible."
Gates broke into a smile and said, "I'm optimistic that we will get Covid-19 under control in 2021. And I'm optimistic that we'll make real progress on climate change--because the world is more committed to solving this problem than it has ever been."
Gates isn't a blind optimist. He's an "impatient" optimist who uses history and data to fuel his positive energy.
Read a lot of history books.
Gates has a long-term perspective because he's a voracious reader of history. He sees a bright future because he knows how far we've come.
During a virtual summit in October 2020, Gates acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic had dealt a "gigantic setback" to 20 years of progress on global health.
"What gives you hope?" the host asked Gates.
"Overall, life is getting better--progress will continue to take place. From technology to telemedicine to advances in health care, we've opened up maybe 12 years of progress in just a year."
Gates's best friend, Warren Buffett, also gives his audience a history lesson when he's asked how he maintains his unwavering optimism.
In 2008, Buffett acknowledged that financial crisis caught him by surprise. Buffett remained calm, however, by relying on his deep knowledge of history.
"Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails in the past ... two great wars, a dozen or so panics and recessions; virulent inflation ... and the Great Depression of the 1930s ... America has had no shortage of challenges. Without fail, however, we've overcome them."
Our "best days lie ahead," Buffett forecast. He was right. The next decade saw one of the greatest explosions of economic growth in U.S history.
In 2020, the pandemic forced Berkshire Hathaway to hold its annual conference virtually with no live audience for the first time. Buffett returned to the history books. He reminded people that despite world wars, civil unrest, economic depressions, and, yes, the pandemic, "the country moves forward, and you just can't stop it."
If you're stuck for a suggestion on where to start your reading list, visit Bill Gates's personal blog for book recommendations. Gates reads 50 books a year and writes summaries and reviews about his favorites. That's where Buffett gets a lot of his book ideas.
Maintaining an optimistic framework takes work. Social media algorithms are designed to amplify the shocking news that trigger our worst fears. Since consuming and sharing bad news is part of human nature, we're fed a steady stream of terrifying headlines all day long.
Instead, you actively have to search for positive developments--in books, websites, newsletters, or podcasts that focus on the progress being made behind the scenes.
"Reading the news today does not exactly leave you feeling optimistic," Gates once wrote. He said that while it might seem "as though the world is falling apart," astonishing things are happening every day---they're just happening gradually, under the radar, in places that don't get attention on television news or your social media feed.
Our brains evolved to pay closer attention to bad news than to good news. But letting a steady cascade of bad news consume our thoughts leads to poor decisions, increased anxiety, and emotional paralysis.
Keep your energy high by feeding yourself the good news, too.
Keep a gratitude journal.
When the actor Dax Shepard interviewed Bill Gates for his podcast, Shepard said that he puts Gates on his "gratitude list" at least once a week. Dax and his wife, Kristen Bell, encourage their children to write down three things they're grateful for every day.
Neuroscientists have found that jotting down three things you're thankful for--and doing so for 21 days--actually rewires the brain and changes the way you look at the world.
It's easy to say that successful entrepreneurs like Buffett and Gates are optimistic because they're rich. But if you look the under the surface you'll find that they're successful because they're optimistic.