Confidence vs Optimism or... I think I can vs I hope I can?

I am very much a "glass half full" kind of guy. We can get into semantics about how it depends on whether you start with an empty glass and add water (filling it up so it is half full) or if you start with a full glass and pour out half (emptying it so it is half empty) but I still look at life's silver linings more often than not. I believe that being optimistic makes me a happier headhunter. I expect every candidate I introduce to get hired (even though I know that the statistics tell a different story). Apparently, it also makes me a healthier headhunter too. According to Harvard Medical School: 

Research tells us that an optimistic outlook early in life can predict better health and a lower rate of death during follow-up periods of 15 to 40 years. Harvard Health Publishing 

 Being so darn bright and cheerful all the time got me to thinking about how to encourage my kids (and yours) to be optimistic as well. Then I thought, "Is there a difference between optimism and confidence and is it better for our kids to be confident or optimistic?"  Is confidence when they think they "can" do something and optimism when they think they "might" be able to do it? 

George, Charles and Noah (Merriam-Webster) define confidence as a feeling or consciousness of one's powers or of reliance on one's circumstances.  They define optimism as an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.

The definition of confidence sounds almost mathematical in its precision. There is a distance that your son has successfully jumped before so he knows that he can jump the same distance again. 

While I think optimism is a good thing, the above definition carries with it an unfortunate hint of wishful thinking. Like the high school student who doesn't study for his exams but still thinks he might somehow get an A. The belief that good things will happen through no effort on our kid's part is not what we are striving for. I want to see my son anticipate the best possible outcome from his own actions.

"Things will work out" sounds more like optimism than confidence. Can your kids be confident and pessimistic at the same time? How about optimistic but not confident? My wife would say that she is not pessimistic but rather realistic. 

Optimism allows our kids to view obstacles and problems as temporary. Pessimism brings about a "what's the point?" kind of attitude. We can take this a step further and imagine a confident young woman but with a pessimistic outlook. Even though she is sure of herself when it comes to her personal skills and knowledge, she hesitates to take on new challenges and opportunities.

I want my kids to have a sense that if there is the possibility of either a good outcome or a bad one, the good one will at least have an equal chance of coming true. Why start anything new or take any risks if the belief is always that it will not work out? The difference seems to be that with optimism there is a sense of external causality and with confidence, it is more focused on one's own internal capabilities. 

I am going to go on record here and say that if you can only have one (both is best) then optimism will take you further than confidence. With optimism, even if you are not sure of your own capabilities, you might still be hopeful enough to try that new thing, say yes to the opportunity offered and apply for that job you are not 100% qualified for.

We have covered confidence several times in this newsletter but how do you raise optimistic kids? For those of you who have been regular readers of the Headhunter Dad you may not be surprised that "modeling" the right behavior is at the top of the list. If Mom and Dad are acting pessimistic and complaining all the time, guess what, the kids are going to do the same. Be positive and focus on what is going right in your life. At least around the kids. The second activity is actually the same as discussed in the article about building confidence. Encourage them to take on new challenges. They will fail sometimes (many times) but when they succeed, make a big deal about it. As they get older the successes will be stronger memories than the failures and help them to develop both confidence and optimism. Who knows, maybe some of this positive thinking will rub off on you too.

The HeadhunterDad, AKA Lawrence Kieffer, is a professor of career studies at Temple University, Japan campus, the COO for Fidel Consulting an APAC Recruiting and Staffing firm focused on IT professionals, a devoted husband, and father of two amazing kids. Follow on TwitterLinkedin or Facebook.