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Optimism Is Overrated

When things aren’t going your way in a race or during a training block, it is helpful to remind yourself how much worse things could be. A lot of athletes who engage in this mental exercise choose prisoners of war specifically for such perspective-shifting comparisons—folks like Admiral James Stockdale, the U.S. Navy Admiral who spent eight years inside the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the war in Vietnam and is perhaps best known for blinking the word “torture” in Morse code during the filming of a hostage video by his captors.

As a person who prizes mental strength, I like to know that folks like Admiral Stockdale exist, but more than that, I want to study them so I can be more like them. To this end, I try to dig beneath their heroics and learn what makes them tick, unearthing the how behind their awesome feats of resilience. In the case of Stockdale, everyone who has read the bestselling business book Good to Great knows the secret to his perseverance. In interviewing the Admiral for the book, author Jim Collins asked him directly who among his fellow POW’s cracked even as Stockdale himself continued to hold himself together.

“The optimists,” he answered readily. “Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Very early in my now nine-month struggle with post-acute COVID-19 syndrome, I started telling friends and relations that I believed I might not ever get better. I did so for two reasons. The first reason was that I believed I might not ever get better. The second was that my gut told me I would cope with the experience more effectively as it unfolded if I did not lie to myself and pretend I somehow magically knew I would get better.

Most of my friends and relations weren’t having it. They went ahead and pretended they did somehow magically know I would get better. And not only that, but they went a step further and cajoled me to be less pessimistic about my own prospects for recovery. “You’ve got to have faith,” they said.

Do I, though? Not as I see it. Optimism is fetishized in our culture, but it’s never made much sense to me personally. I catch a whiff of pollyannaish denial when optimism is expressed in situations of dire uncertainty. For a person to say that everything is going to work out just fine when they have no legitimate basis to make such a claim seems weak to me, a childish attempt at self-delusion motivated by a fragile inability to handle the truth.

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The problem with the optimistic impulse is that it originates from an external locus of control, or a habit of making success dependent on factors that are outside one’s sphere of influence. The optimist thinks, I believe the weather forecasters are wrong, and it’s not going to be hot on race day, so I can have a good race. The athlete version of James Stockdale, by contrast, thinks, Well, it looks like race day’s going to be a scorcher. I’m going to prepare myself as best I can mentally and physically so I can have a good race regardless. When it turns out that race day is indeed a scorcher, the unprepared optimist freaks out and has a bad race and the Stockdale type takes advantage of his non-dependence on luck to have a good race, all things considered.

In Good to Great, Stockdale is also quoted as saying, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

The Admiral’s use of the word “faith” sounds a lot like optimism, but in fact it is anything but. Stockdale is talking here about faith in one’s own ability to persevere in the face of an unfavorable reality, not the usual wide-eyed optimistic happy-talk about reality pivoting providentially in one’s favor. As readers of my book The Comeback Quotient will know, my term for those who possess “the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” is ultrarealists, and the great athletic masters of mental fitness, those who are capable of pulling off seemingly miraculous comebacks, are just that—ultrarealists—not optimists.

The former type coped far better than the latter during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the optimists were saying, “I just know the races will come back in the fall,” and were subsequently soul-crushed when the races did not come back in the fall, the ultrarealists were saying, “I have no idea if the races will come back come fall, so I’m going to concentrate on making progress as an athlete regardless, and if the races do come back, so much the better,” and when the races didn’t come back, these stronger men and women were not soul-crushed.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with some of my fellow long-haulers. They have a few good days and they just knowthey’re on the path toward full recovery, then they suffer a setback and are devastated. Or they hear reports that some long-haulers are getting symptom relief from the various coronavirus vaccines and they just know that their first or second shot is going to be their silver bullet, and when it isn’t they despair. To be perfectly honest, I too have allowed hope to sneak in and set me up for a few falls over the past nine months, but never again.

Yes, I am familiar with the research on optimism. A certain kind of optimism does appear to serve some people well as a coping mechanism. But the point I’m making is that optimism is not an effective coping mechanism for many others, and it is not the only way to get by in this hard world, either as an athlete and as a human being.