One of my greatest mentors was the late Jay Chiat of TBWA Chiat Day, an iconoclast in the field of advertising with a constant imagination for possibilities in business and life. Jay embodied the three traits of a "lucky attitude" that I described in my last post: humility, intellectual curiosity, and optimism. Of these three characteristics, it was Jay's optimism which was perhaps his greatest lesson to me. He inspired people to embrace optimism — inside themselves, and also, as importantly, in others. It is a gift to understand how to project, share, and inspire with optimism. It is an even greater act of generosity to be inspired by optimism from others and to be willing to receive it.
The capacity to be a natural recipient of ideas and other peoples' optimism is what makes for the ultimate optimist. You may be open to experimenting with new things, but do you truly see the good in something before the bad? The order of this thought process is critical: to try and see everything good in an idea before seeing anything bad. While most of us like to think we do, and would therefore self-describe ourselves as optimistic, more often (if we are truly honest with ourselves) we are natural critics (even cynics). Experience brings wisdom, but its collateral damage is that it can jade one against new concepts, turning many of us into Pavlovian skeptics. Whether we openly say it or not, we often think of what might be wrong with someone or something before we try to understand what might be right or good. The temptation and reflex for cynicism is usually more common than a natural responsive optimism. Cynicism is indeed the enemy of optimism.
Here's a practical tool for the skeptic or cynic in all of us: the 24x3 rule. The next time you hear an idea for the first time, or meet someone new, try to wait 24 seconds before saying or thinking something negative. This reinforces a foundational skill of good optimists and good leadership. That basic skill is listening. As you gain the ability to listen and pause for a brief 24 seconds before letting the critic in you bubble to the verbal surface, move to the next level and try to do it for 24 minutes. At 24 minutes, you are able to give more considered thought to the idea and think more carefully of the many reasons why it might actually work, why it might be better than what is out there, and why it might just topple conventional wisdom.
And yes, you should also work towards the ability to wait 24 hours — one single day — before pondering or verbalizing the cons against something. Of course, most times this will not be possible. Our minds cannot compartmentalize so easily, nor shut off our past experiences. But the 24x3 rule is a type of reflective meditation for developing a more optimistic approach towards people and ideas. The simple guideline of 24x24x24 is just a good reminder that a prerequisite of optimism is to have a willing suspension of disbelief.
This is not saying in any way not to be a healthy critic — it is absolutely essential in business leadership to be a critic — but rather that inspirational leadership and effective mentorship require a bite-your-tongue, wait-to-be-a-critic mindset and attitude. Start with the pause button for 24 seconds and stretch it towards being able to ponder positively for 24 hours. Mastering the 24x3 rule will make you a more enjoyable and inspirational leader to be around. In increasing your generosity to receive optimism, you will be rewarded with new possibilities that others have prematurely dismissed.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 7/26/2011.