While writing my most recent book, It's Not the End of the World: Developing Resilience in Times of Change, I came across some fascinating accounts about the merits of realism, which is one of the three major keys to resilience. When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, financial giant J.P. Morgan Stanley faced the reality that the highly symbolic building they occupied was a prime terrorist target. They responded by implementing escape drills, which they expected everyone to attend and take seriously.

This heads-up attitude proved to be lifesaving nine years later on 9/11 when two airplanes destroyed the iconic twin towers and killed nearly 3,000 people. Luck was also on J.P. Morgan's side because its 2,700 employees were all in the south tower, which was the second to be struck. The first tower went down at 8:46 a.m. By 8:47 a.m., J.P. Morgan Stanley's employees were evacuating. Within 15 minutes, the offices were almost empty. In spite of receiving an almost direct hit, they lost only seven employees. Realism helped save the day.

Unfettered optimism that's based on the denial of reality, on the other hand, can spell trouble. Think housing bubble and bank collapse. When I questioned the sanity of an enthusiastic friend who bought five houses with 0 percent down circa 2004, she pulled the optimism card on me. Her positive attitude would guarantee success, while my negativity would result in missing the boat of opportunity. Unfortunately for us all, and especially for "Donna," the boat of opportunity turned out to be the Titanic.

The very hip Princeton professor of African-American studies and religion Cornel West warns of the dangers of "cheap optimism," while Wellesley College professor of psychology Julie K. Norem lauds the value of "defensive pessimism." For some of us—and I'm obviously one—thinking thoughts like, "I'm going to blow that presentation," helps reduce anxiety by motivating us to work harder. Work, in turn, reduces anxiety and cuts down worry.

3 tips to become an optimistic realist


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