In the Intersection of Idealism, Optimism, Pessimism and Realism

Idealism, optimism, pessimism and realism all have their place in how an organization (i.e., work group up to institution) functions, but leveraging each to its full potential requires being intentional and aware while in the intersection of the isms. Being intentional means understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each ism and strategically choosing where and when to incorporate the strengths while minimizing the weaknesses. Being aware means recognizing which ism you, your work group or institution is operating in at the moment. The intersection of these isms can yield tremendous rewards if navigated well.


For purposes of this post, I will use the following definitions from Merriam-Webster:

The Intersection of Isms

Not all isms are directly related to each other. Optimism and pessimism are related while idealism and realism are related. Idealists and optimists may more closely associate while pessimists and realists may more closely associate. They do all tend to intersect in many situations.

In the intersection, all 4 of the isms are valuable if navigated well by leveraging their positive aspects while minimizing their negative aspects. Navigating the intersection to obtain the positive aspects may result in the following:

  • Idealism creates the target goal while realism defines how the process or organization currently operates.
  • Optimism provides the energy to surmount the obstacles pessimism illuminates.
Some Positive and Negative Aspects of Isms:
Positive Negative
Idealism seeks what could be chases unicorns
Realism understands the current situation trapped by what is
Optimism energy to surmount obstacles Pollyanna
Pessimism points out the issues Debbie Downer

If done with intention and awareness, the successful navigation of the intersection of the isms may be done all in one person's head. Imagine what could be accomplished if an entire work group or institution were able to achieve this!

Being Intentional

Being intentional about any practice helps to maximize the positive aspects while minimizing the negative aspects of the practice. An example would be creating a grocery list before going to the grocery store. Creating the list requires being intentional about which items to purchase. This reduces grabbing whatever looks good and throwing it into the shopping cart. The intentional creation of a grocery list in advance ensures the intended items are purchased while the unintended items are left in the store.

The downside of adherence to a grocery list is the lack of opportunity for purchasing items that were neglected to be put on the list or for items that may be seasonal (or yummy looking). To mitigate this issue, the intention of using the list may be to stay mostly with the list while allowing for some impulse decisions. I used to lie to myself by adding the impulse item to the list and proclaiming that “Oreos were intentional.” They were not. Now I acknowledge some items will be purchased that are not on the list. As a result of this intentional latitude, I purchase far fewer impulse items – but I could.

What this means for navigating the intersection is a proactive, conscious plan that maximizes the positive aspects of the isms yet allows some latitude for the negative aspects is necessary. Sometimes a little Pollyanna (or an Oreo) can be a good thing.

Being Aware

Being intentional is very important, but it loses its punch if we are unaware where we are in the intersection. This is like people who say confronting difficult issues are important, but refuse to talk about the elephant in the room. The intention is what is desired, but the execution is lacking. They may be disingenuous, but many times this disconnect occurs because they may not be aware of how their statements are disconnected from their practice. Argyris and Schön call what a person says (action) and what that person does (action) his or her espoused theory and theory-in-use. Being aware is about making sure what is intended and what happens are as congruent as possible.

Claiming to be an optimist while unknowingly talking like Debbie Downer would be a disconnect between the espoused theory and the theory-in-use. In addition, Debbie Downer is the negative side of pessimism, and often is not constructive. Being aware takes constant vigilance. We run on autopilot more often than we think. Add emotion into the mix, and years of conditioned actions may take over. Sometimes this is good, but sometimes our conditioned actions are not how we aspire to be.

One of the best ways to counter the problem of running on autopilot is to collaborate with people you trust so you may challenge each other. Challenging people may be done constructively if done respectfully, so do not shy away from challenging others as long as you are open to being challenged.

Final Thoughts

The goal in the intersection of the isms is to leverage the positive aspects while minimizing the negative aspects. This is a challenge for nearly everyone. We navigate the intersection sometimes without intention, sometimes without awareness and sometimes without both.

Be intentional about your navigation, and find a person or group of people you trust to challenge your and each other's awareness. Then, get busy exploring the intersection.