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MCLEOD: Optimism versus pessimism: A treacherous false choice

The sunny-side-uppers claim that a positive attitude is the secret to turning around negative situations. If only all the Eeyores of the world would start thinking more positively, we could cure disease, create world peace, and line our pockets with riches.

But the self-titled "realists" believe that they're the only ones are willing to face the facts. Leave life to the Pollyannas, and they'll skip us off the edge of a cliff, clutching a copy of the "Secret" to their chest, passionately chanting, "I believe I can fly, I believe I can fly."

But which side is right?

The answer is both. Or neither, depending on whether you prefer your glass half-full or half-empty.

As any cynic will tell you, optimism, while it feels good, often deludes people into ignoring reality. However, pessimism can suck people into depression and inaction, which aren't very helpful in dealing with problems.

But the pessimism versus optimism debate is actually a false choice. An either/or myth perpetuated by optimists and pessimists who find themselves completely exasperated that the clueless optimists/pessimists on the other side can't see the truth.

However, the real duality we need to embrace is facts and faith.

As in, the facts may be pretty awful and having faith that you will ultimately prevail is one of the best ways to insure that you do.

Originally cited by Jim Collins in the classic business best-seller "Good to Great" the ability to face the brutal facts of your current situation and hold onto your faith in the end game is one of the hallmarks of a great leader, and it's one the secrets of surviving adversity.

The nuanced differences between the facts and faith vs. pessimism and optimism are important.

Pessimism is a negative predisposition that assumes the worst. However, facing facts takes the emotion out of the equation, and allows you to look clear-eyed at even the worst of situations. Yes, your business might be going broke, or your disease might only have a 2 percent survival rate, or your 401(k) may be worth less than it was when you were 20. But those are just the facts of the situation; they don't have to dictate your response.

That's where faith comes in.

While optimism is usually connected to certain outcomes: I'll meet Mr. Right, I'll find a new job next week, I won't have to do any more chemo. Faith is less scripted.

It can be faith in God, faith in yourself or just a general feeling that the world tilts toward the greater good. It's a belief that things eventually work out OK, even if the process is messy and doesn't play out exactly the way you've planned.

I explore the facts and faith duality in my new book "The Triangle of Truth," which comes out in January.

One of the things I uncovered in my research, is that the ability to tolerate uncertainty is often what separates the people who can survive difficult situations from those who are flattened by them.

Optimism and pessimism are both based on assumptions that things will play out in certain ways. Yet people who are able to tolerate the uncertainty can assimilate the idea of looking at facts and holding onto faith at the same time.

Embracing ambiguity is hard for us humans. The optimists and the pessimists may seem sure of their perspectives, but the truth is, nobody knows for sure how life will play out.

We never did and we never will.

Snellville resident Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of "Forget Perfect." Contact her at www.forgetperfect.com.