Hope is crucial for human flourishing but it’s a topic rarely discussed in business until the pandemic made it unavoidable. In times of great turmoil, hope can seem naïve – or worse, like a set-up for future disappointment. And yet, hope is essential to our satisfaction, our motivation, our health and our performance. When things look bleak, staying hopeful is one of our most difficult and essential self-management tasks. It’s difficult because it requires a delicate balance between accepting that we can’t know the future, while believing that things will be better than the present. This is essential because when hope is lost, so is our will to endure and ultimately prevail.
With a pandemic entering its third year, the ongoing war in Ukraine, near daily evidence of impending climate catastrophe, global supply chain disruption and inflation, among other woes, there has become more important than ever to maintain hope. We need it in our jobs as well as in our personal lives. The good news is that you can take steps to maintain hope and gain the many documented benefits that hope confers.
It starts with understanding the nature of hope. Shane Lopez, who has studied hope extensively both as an academic and as a senior researcher at Gallup, defines hope as “the belief that the future will be better than the present, coupled with belief that you have the power to do so. “It is this combination of optimism and personal agency that differentiates hope from its lower cousins like bravado or wishful thinking. When we play the lottery, we are engaged in wishful thinking. When we develop a business plan and present it to the bank for a loan, we are in the realm of hope.
At all stages of life, hope produces immense benefits. Hopeful students do better in school, hopeful adults report higher life satisfaction, and hopeful seniors have significantly lower mortality rates. And in my experience coaching leaders in organizations of all sizes, I’ve discovered that hope is a core trait of high achievers.
Bringing discipline to hope begins with conscious work to imagine a better future, continues with planning that supports that future, and becomes resilient through the ability to accept that, despite our best efforts, the future lies ahead. both unknown and unknowable. Here’s what you can do to create and sustain hope, not just in this time of great uncertainty and sadness.
Imagine a plausible and positive future
Three years ago, one of the best environmental lawyers in the world participated in a seminar on resilience that I was facilitating. In preparation, the class conducted an evaluation that asked participants to rate their agreement with the statement “the future will probably be better than things are now”. As we talked about the value of hope in promoting resilience, she said, “I can show you data that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the future will be worse than the present.” With tears in her eyes, she spoke of her struggle to maintain hope in a world that is heading irreversibly towards climate catastrophe.
If you can’t imagine a better future, hope is impossible. What we imagine impacts us emotionally and physically. Athletes experience significant benefits to their physical performance by repeatedly and vividly imagining themselves performing well. Conversely, when we repeatedly and vividly imagine a dark future, it impacts our performance, our mood, and even our physiology. A lack of positive future images is associated with depression, and the intrusion of strong negative images is associated with PTSD. We are paying an emotional and physical price for a future that may not even happen.
So instead of fixating on a dismal future, consciously imagine plausible alternative futures for yourself that will bring you energy and motivation instead of fear and anxiety.
First, write down what you currently imagine about the future and what emotions these images evoke. Describe exactly what you imagine (eg, “still working from my room next year”) instead of generalities (like “working from home”). Specific images, not general ideas, have the greatest impact on our inner state. Often we are not fully aware of the images we hold or the impact they create internally. Making them concrete and tangible is the first step, similar to the Stoic practice of negative visualization, in which vividly imagining worst-case scenarios strips them of their power.
Second, imagine that things have gone well for you over the next two years and write yourself a postcard of that future. Describe your life. What’s going on in your world of work? Personal world? The key question is, “Where will I be if things went well for me?” He should feel optimistic but realistic.
Third, stand in that future. Vividly imagine yourself in the future you have described. Imagine the conversations you have with the people around you. Imagine how you feel. Try to involve as many senses as possible in your images – the tactile sensations of hugging a loved one, the feeling of a handshake to seal your promotion. Research shows that the more vivid our images, the more they have a direct impact on our inner state.
Identify the next best action
Hope also requires the formation of what researchers call “travel thoughts” that foster the belief that we can make the imagined future a reality. Imagination makes hope possible; planning makes it real.
When legendary mental performance coach Peter Jensen, who has worked with over 100 Olympic medalists, begins working with a new athlete, he pulls out a blank sheet of paper. In the upper right corner, he writes their goal – for example “to qualify for the 2024 Olympics“. In the lower left corner he writes their current status – for example “fifth in national championships”. He then draws a diagonal line from the lower left corner to the upper right corner and, together with the athlete, begins to plot his course on the timeline. Critical markers like “Olympic Trials” and “National Championships” go first. They keep working backwards, until they come to a simple question: “What’s the next best step?” »
You can take the same approach for your journey to work and beyond. What is the path to the future that you have imagined? What are the critical markers? And above all, what is the next step? If you’re having trouble identifying your next step, review the following potential areas of action:
Behaviours – Is there anything I should do more, less or more consistently?
Relationships – Is there a relationship I need to build, strengthen or let go?
Learning – Is there a skill or ability I should invest in developing?
beliefs – Is there a belief that I should give up or cultivate?
See setbacks as inflection points, not defeats
The final component of hope – and the one that makes it resilient – is the ability to come to terms with the fact that we cannot control or predict the future despite our vivid imaginations and best-laid plans. When things don’t go as planned, cultivate the ability to see adversity as an inflection point rather than a reason to give up hope.
In the improvisational game Fortunately, unfortunately, an actor begins a story with the word Fortunately. They might say something like, “Fortunately, I found a $100 bill on the floor.” Another actor then continues the story with Unfortunately: “Unfortunately, when you bent down to retrieve it, you suffered a hernia.” And so on, back and forth.
The game is a helpful reminder of the opportunity hidden in adversity. Many of the most successful people I have worked with over the years point to moments of failure as key catalysts to their eventual success.
As you progress through your own game of Fortunately, Unfortunately, you have to anticipate that things won’t go perfectly according to the plan you’ve identified. When adversity hits, ask yourself how this could be an inflection point for you and what you can do to change Unfortunately for Fortunately. Also ask what you learn from adversity that will help you in the future. So abandon your original plan and start reimagining an alternate future.
When you can imagine a plausible future better than the present, identify the path to that future, and accept that things rarely go exactly as planned, you will cultivate hope that is both helpful and resilient.