How Optimism Could Save Us

Marc Mertens Chief Executive Officer

There’s no better time than right now to take a few moments to reflect on one word that defines much of what we do at A Hundred Years: optimism. Optimism has been a major part of the cultural conversation lately, particularly during this election season, which has spawned a great deal of pessimism. As a culture, we need leaders who are optimistic, and the same is true in business.

But it’s not about blind head-nodding or seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s about recognizing and understanding the challenges in front of us and finding ways to turn these challenges into opportunities. And in fact, if you look back at some of the greatest breakthroughs in history, from the development of vaccines to the declaration of human rights in the aftermath of World War II, humanity has demonstrated its ability to transform our biggest challenges into our biggest opportunities.

At A Hundred Years, we call ourselves a team of optimists because we all share the belief that the future is full of possibility. And this belief in a better future—this expectation—allows us to invest in that future.”

I reference this Stewart Brand quote time and time again because it’s just so fitting.”If you truly think things are getting worse, won’t you grab everything you can, while you can? Reap now, sow nothing. But if you think things are getting better, you invest in the future. Sow now, reap later.” It is that belief in a better future that drives rapid change, innovation, and scale in relevant start-ups, and it’s the lack of the same belief that has so many large organizations dwindling with their focus on extracting maximum returns in the short-term.

Here’s how optimism could save our culture and your company:

You can solve problems no one else can solve.
Optimism fosters creativity and possibility. It’s the fuel of entrepreneurship. It enables you to take risks because you believe there’s something better out there than what already exists. We were excited to partner with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation because they recognized an opportunity to create a nation-wide culture of health. Instead of stalling at the rising costs of healthcare and ever-present health crisis in the US, the organization launched a massive, cross-sector movement to reimagine a society with a holistic sense of wellness, galvanizing health insurance companies, corporations, NGOs, and individuals.

You can learn from the past rather than dwell on it.
Successful leaders reflect on the past as a way of developing a point of view on the future. They also get inspired by the past. Within the past 100 years, we put a man on the moon, replaced horse-drawn carriages with gleaming Model Ts, exploded our access to information with the Internet, and cured once-deadly diseases with antibiotics—all without access to modern technology. The 21st century is all about stepping up to big challenges. No one would tell you we should do business in the next 100 years the way we did business in the past because we literally don’t have enough resources on earth. But while our reality is scarcity, the only way out is a mindset of abundance.

You’ll think about a future bigger than yourself.
Every one of us, in the context of our lives, has the choice to imagine the future we want to live in and to design a systematic way of getting there. We can—and need to—do the same thing within the context of our organizations and culture at large, particularly if we want to tackle gnarly problems like climate change. Patagonia’s buy less, repair more initiative is a great example of thinking far beyond their short-term bottom line. And turns out, customers get inspired by this kind of thinking, too, which ultimately builds brand loyalty and your bottom line.

You’ll stand out.
Successful organizations don’t just sell competitive products and services. They stand out because of their important ideas. Our work with the B Team, a fundamentally optimistic initiative, highlighted just how important this piece is.  We helped them organize their thought leadership around the global challenges that their partners are taking on. These companies are forging new models for business to act as a force for social, environmental, and economic good. Today, relevance is the new awareness, and there’s nothing more relevant than shaping not only a sustainable but a truly exciting future.

You’ll attract—and retain—better employees.
You can use the power of your brand to influence everything from the supply chain within your own organization to government policy that can better serve your community. And this kind of action generates loyalty not only from customers but your own employees. Optimism that’s truly threaded through a company touches its products, but also its people in significant ways, creating a work environment where people want to stick around. This is why a company like household brand Seventh Generation has one of the lowest employee turnover rates. Their sense of optimism has shaped even the programs and benefits available to employees.

So, feeling optimistic? To shift your mindset, here are three great sources of inspiration:
The Optimism Bias
The Tao of Pooh
TED talk by Tali Sharot