In her commencement speech to MIT's graduating class of 2018 on Friday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave one piece of advice that every entrepreneur should consider. She said that technologists who change the world approach the future with "clear-eyed optimism."

When challenges inevitably arise in technology, Sandberg said (in reference to Facebook's recent privacy problems), a leader has three options: 

  1. Retreat in fear.
  2. Barrel ahead with a single-minded belief in their technology.
  3. Fight like hell to do all they can, knowing that what they build will be used by people who are capable of "great beauty and great cruelty." 

"I encourage you to choose the third option," Sandberg said. "Building technology that supports equality, democracy, truth and kindness means looking around corners and throwing up roadblocks against hate, violence and deception."

Technologists have always been optimists, Sandberg reminded MIT graduates. "We're optimists because we have to be. If you want to do something that's never been done before, so many people will tell you that it can't be done."

Although the world feels polarized and dangerous, Sandberg reminded students that they are better off in ways that were unimaginable even when she graduated. From the rise in global life expectancy to the decline in extreme poverty, "We have made more progress in our lifetimes than in the rest of human history."

Optimists have a competitive advantage.

Optimism is a key personality trait of most of the inspiring leaders I've interviewed, studied or written about. When I worked with executives at Intel, a quote from Intel co-founder Robert Noyce greeted everyone as they entered the building: "Optimism is an essential ingredient of innovation."

Why would he say that? Intel executives explained that optimistic personalities welcome change over security, adventure over the status quo. 

In the book How Luck Happens, prominent psychology professor Dr. Martin Seligman is quoted as saying that if you could choose one person to take along on a space ship, you should choose the optimistic one. They tend to be "luckier" because the personality trait allows you to take advantage of good events and not get bogged down when things go south. Those who believe in a positive future tend to get lucky more often than people who constantly say self-defeating and pessimistic things about the future. 

Sandberg isn't talking about blind optimism. The future won't just take care of itself. Clear-eyed optimism means recognizing that while things can be bad, you can influence the future for the better.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Bill Gates's favorite author, Steven Pinker. His book, Enlightenment Now, reveals some of the positive data about human progress that Sandberg quoted in her commencement speech. Pinker told me that optimists have a built-in advantage:

"One reason might be that, because most people are pessimistic about the world, the optimist has a competitive advantage, taking advantage of opportunities others might not take. Also, there are so many things that can go wrong in anything you do. The odds are really stacked against us. There must be some degree of optimism to embark on a project that have a chance of failure. If you don't have a sense that the gamble you're taking will pay off, you won't have the gumption to try it in the first place."

Being a clear-eyed optimist doesn't ignoring the problems facing your career, your field or the world. It does mean, according to Sandberg, that you embrace your potential to build technologies that improve lives, build teams that increase diversity, and build products and services that expand human progress even further. 

Sandberg notes that we're living in one of the most remarkable moments in human history. The clear-eyed optimists will shape it.

Published on: Jun 8, 2018
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