Everyday I am confronted, mostly on social media, that being anything other than the eternal optimist will equal failure in life. B Cade Massey, a professor of organisational behaviour at Yale, says: “It has gotten to the point where people feel pressure to think and talk in an optimistic way.” As Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote, suggests, “Filling your mind with positive thoughts and emotions, it seems to make sense…I think the idea grew out of … finding a philosophy of life that feels compatible with consumer capitalism.”

The Pollyanna approach to dealing with life’s struggles is pervasive on the modern social landscape, and I get the feeling that to not fall into that happy camp (at least even if it is simply to pretend) one is likely to be labeled the ‘uncool kid’. Much of this ‘be positive’ banta surrounds the world of achieving success in ones life and career. It can all be boiled down to achieving better performance. As a martial artist, I can’t help but feel that most people throwing around the optimism card don’t fully grasp success architecture in the world of performance — which isn’t the world of wishful thinking.

As a modern martial artist, I don’t believe it is possible to achieve success in the realm of performance, without actually playing the game. Even in my 40’s, each week I get on the mat and spar no less than 24-rounds with other athletes. Many of them are a lot younger than I am. The experience of sparring over the past 2-decades has taught me many things about achieving success beyond the ring, in life. Most of these lessons fly in the face of the pervading cult of optimism which suggests for the most part, be happy, be an optimist, think positive — or the self help notion of “fake it till you make it” — which is suggested will ultimately lead to success in anything you decide to take on.

When you are standing in front of someone who you know has the potential to tear you apart with their fists, there is no time to bullshit yourself. You have no choice but to be a realist and to accept the experience as it literally is. This is not being negative, but using facts and past experience, rather than hopeful thinking, to predict the future outcome of what you face. In other words, not knowing what your strengths are, and knowing what your weaknesses are, can result in you seriously getting hurt. You can lie to yourself all you like about your level of game in a fight environment, but that wont stop the opponent dismantling you.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality”
― Seneca

The lesson: knowing what you have, and knowing what you don’t have — gives you a sense of focus and what you really need to work on to become successful. This doesn’t make you a pessimist, but a realist. Realists are not unhappy, they are real, they see life as it truly is. Life is tough, unforgiving, it’s unpredictable, and it almost never goes to plan. And you know what, that’s perfectly okay. In fact, it is this very fabric of unpredictability that makes any kind of meaningful success possible. Why? Because faced with what is, you have no choice but to do what needs to be done. This starts with being pragmatic and accepting about where you find yourself. Accepting where you are, in a rut, in a hole — doesn’t make you a quitter, but rather grounds you in the here and now of what is truly possible. The potentiality of success in other words, has to start where it doesn’t exist to begin with.

There hasn’t been a bad time in my life where there wasn’t something, even something small that I couldn’t do to begin to make things better. But what this meant was that I couldn’t just have wishful thinking that everything will magically sort it self out on its own because I believed it would, or because I walked around looking like a Cheshire cat all day long. Rather it meant taking real, meaningful, and measurable action to rectify the situation. Being all Pollyanna while being in a shitty place, doesn’t change the fact that you are in a shitty place. But if you take fake happiness, and fake smiles out of it, and look hard, and real at where you are, and then ask yourself the hard question, “What is the one thing I can do right now, to really begin to change where I am?” (and it may mean changing who you are) things won’t immediately look brighter, but you will feel better about the fact that you are actually doing something to change it. As Seneca writes,“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow, and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

The cult of optimism suggests, that when the shit hits the fan, that you should keep optimistic – but without actually being realistic and putting the work in you will simply be optimistic – and the shitty situation will remain the same. My success as a martial artist didn’t happen the moment before success or being optimistic about it, rather success arose out of all the successive moments that preceded success itself. It’s called doing the work, the hard work. You see this is what I have learned, if you work on succeeding 1% at a time, no matter how small that success may be, it ultimately culminates in the 100% you were aiming for all along. Every 1% isn’t going to be easy. Sometimes you will want to throw the towel in. Sometimes, you do have to quit, and find another way to get the same thing done. One thing I have learned about success is to recognise when the way I am trying to do something isn’t working (will likely never work), and then shelve it. Out of everything I ever decided to quit on (and of course I worked hard for it not to fail) something better, more sensible came out of it. In other words, part of success is failure, with failures often leading to success. As Seneca notes “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.”

“If anyone says that the best life of all is to sail the sea, and then adds that I must not sail upon a sea where shipwrecks are a common occurrence and there are often sudden storms that sweep the helmsman in an adverse direction, I conclude that this man, although he lauds navigation, really forbids me to launch my ship.”
― Seneca, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters