“Hope is not a strategy.”*
These words stood imposingly above a terrified child careening down a slide into a spider’s web. The spider watched the scene with ghoulish hunger. I watched it with a bubbling muck of glitching amygdala. I waffled among wanting to curl up in the fetal position, run away, or punch the speaker. Or punch the screen. Or punch the spider-loving, child-hating cartoonist who drew the image now violating my eyes. (Attack is one way we humans offload our own hurt, FYI.)
I didn’t need to look at my colleagues. I could sense them without needing to see them. My chest turned to lead as I felt their battered souls unplug their life support machines one by one.
We didn’t hear what came next. Our emotional flooding transformed the speaker into an adult from a Charlie Brown special. Mwa-mwa-mwa. Mwa. A few of us thought we heard the speaker say, “Hope is dumb. YOUR hope is dumb. You’re dumb. You’re f&*ed. Mwa.” I don’t think he said that…but I also never fathomed a world where cartoonists hated children.
In the sweet calm of retrospect, I believe our speaker intended to impress upon us that wishful thinking alone would not fix the dysfunctional and toxic culture in which we lived. Fair enough, but words matter. Further, we weren’t spending our days raining tears on four-leaf clovers while we shook unicorn horns wishing and waiting.
The speaker’s conflation of hope with wishful thinking was a problem. His assumption that we didn’t know we had to try new paths to get new outcomes was a problem. And the elephant-in-the-room problem was his failure to understand the importance of our hope. We were showing up in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges with hope and acting through hope. Our hope was THE strategy.
The next two days – intended to bring us together and change the course of our destiny – were a magnificent display of interpersonal conflict, resistance, and demoralized sighing. It was a gorgeous case study in how things go sideways when your opening bombs.
What is Hope?
Hope is not an emotion. It isn’t wishful thinking or a fluffy feeling that things will just magically be OK. As we’ve become detached from our humanness, we’ve lost understanding about what hope is and why it’s essential to both thriving and striving.
Hope is a way of thinking or a cognitive process – it’s like a program our brain runs that shapes our behaviors and resulting outcomes. In the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, lead character Phil Connors is trapped in a time loop, reliving the same craptacular day on repeat.
He’s faced with a decision:
- Believe the day cannot be better and suffer in perpetuity or
- Believe he can find a way to get what he wants and act on that belief
Phil chooses the latter. He wakes up morning after morning to explore new actions, face painfully unfortunate events and frustrations as a result, go to bed, and then start all over. He learns something new each day, and in return, creates a new strategy for the next.
This, my friends, is hope.
According to hope theory research (see the works of C.R. Snyder and link below), hope has three parts:
- Goals – I have a goal that is important to me. I know what I want or where I want to go.
- Pathways – I believe I’m able to create paths for getting to my goal.
- Agency – I am motivated to take the paths I create, and I believe I can stay on them until I arrive at my goal.
An important aspect of pathways and agency is a belief: I’m able to create new paths if I encounter barriers along the way. I can reset. I believe everything is figure-it-out-able.
The Cost of Hope Hate
When we understand hope, a few things become apparent.
First, we most definitely should have punched the “hope is not a strategy” slide in the face.
Second, a real cost exists to not elevating and cultivating hope. When we diminish the importance of hope or conflate it with wishful thinking, we violate the rule of “do no harm.” This is because hope is important to our success. It’s a program we run to move towards new outcomes. Further, the alternative to hope is the neural program called despair. And despair is a destructive force not only in our own lives but in our leadership of others. As the research of Dr. Brené Brown indicates, despair often lies beneath the armored leadership behaviors of cynicism and sarcasm – behaviors that leave anger, confusion, resentment, and toxicity in their wake. To move into daring leadership behaviors, we need an antidote to this armor. We need hope.
Third, if we choose to not elevate and cultivate hope, we must understand it’s a choice, and choices have outcomes.
- We can’t ask for growth, grit, or resilience without elevating and cultivating hope.
- We can’t demand success in the face of change, setbacks, and obstacles without elevating and cultivating hope.
- We can’t transform our culture or communities without elevating and cultivating hope.
- We can’t get out of our own, punch-in-the-gut Groundhog Day moments without elevating and cultivating hope.
For those who choose to elevate and cultivate hope, I have joyful news. The brain wiring that runs our hope program can be built and strengthened. We can operationalize hope as a value at work and in our communities. We can raise awareness about what hope is, observe it in action, and cultivate it through skill building, practice, and feedback.
Step one is to find a more child-friendly cartoon and make a slide that says, “Hope is THE strategy.”
Step two is up to you.
*This post is adapted from an earlier article published by Samantha Crowe on LinkedIn.
Further reading: http://positivepsychology.org.uk/hope-theory-snyder-adult-scale/