Have No Fear: Optimism Leads To Innovation

One of my favorite new thinkers is Jordan Peterson. I’m ankle deep in the audiobook of his first opus, Maps of Meaning, and am already engrossed in his thinking on how humans think and process, in comparison to lesser animals. He describes a study on fright done with lab rats, where a rat is placed in a cage and then exposed to all sorts of stimuli to drive a fear response.

When he highlighted was that the researchers got something wrong: merely putting the rat in the cage (an unfamiliar place) triggered the rats fear response – just being somewhere new and different (the unknown is more frightening than the bad) was enough to freak out the animal. If humans are anything like rats (otherwise why would we use them in studies), then we also have the same response when exposed to new, different stimulus, whether its new, unfamiliar places or new, unusual ideas, our first reaction, especially if immature or pessimistic, is one of fear.

Of course, we benefit from having the larger more evolved brain – we can choose to look at the situation in different ways. Unlike the rat, we can want to look at an unfamiliar place in an optimistic or pessimistic light. We can choose to accept or reject.

When introducing a cat to a rat habitat, they keen in fear for days before the fear subsides. Maybe it’s similar for humans: if you haven’t experienced something, your first tendency is fear and to flee, if not physically, at least mentally, from the place (or idea). Maybe that’s why many are not open to new ideas: the fear response is too powerful unless overridden with purposeful human thought.

Humans can train themselves to be more open to new ideas by driving towards optimism. When this fear instantiates as pessimism; fear can lead to promising new ideas to be shut down in the name of realism. If you are afraid of new ideas, you can, however, train yourself to be more open to them. To become more optimistic.

Just like physically being in different locations can trigger new thinking, exposing yourself to new ideas can be mind opening. Why would some not want to be open about new ideas? It may come down to pure pessimism; if you feel that no matter what idea is presented they can’t possibly make things better, then you will tend to want to shoot down any new idea, not just the bad ones.

Pessimism can sometimes look and sound like realism but in actuality is quite easy to differentiate. If the majority of ideas, even those who seem simple to implement and useful are shot down with a little exploration, then you may be dealing with a pessimistic person. Pessimists will react like the rat in the cage, keening (by delay and obstruction) until the new idea is dropped.

It’s also possible that the pessimism you are seeing is due to previous failed innovation programs, or a pessimistic culture created by layer upon layer of perceived past failures, or programs or of senior management, to change the course of the organization. It is possible to change the course of a pessimistic culture, however, like building any trust, it takes time and a series of successes to prove to even the most pessimistic cultures that things are different now.

It takes time and effort, but it is possible, has been proven that it can happen. If you can tip the scales in favor of optimism, it will lead your organization to innovation.