overthinking the human condition on a friday morning

Two of the most powerful human emotions are fear and hope. Interestingly, they are both future focused. Fear and hope are always about situations that might not exist or events that have not yet played out.

Pain and pleasure are the two great motivators. Whether we’re talking about the physical, emotional, or spiritual, us humans are always trying to organize our lives to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Paradoxically, the choices and actions that create near-term/immediate pleasure often lead to long-term/future pain. And vice versa.

Pessimism and optimism are the filters and philosophies through which we take in and interpret data. Pessimism seems to focus on fear and pain while optimism concentrates on hope and pleasure. Pessimists tend to see pleasure as fleeting and temporary. Optimists view pleasure as the natural state, pain as a brief interruption. Fortunately, both approaches are useful.

Fear and a healthy desire to avoid pain helps keep us from making terminally stupid decisions. It drives us to plan ahead and save for the rainy days. Hope and a healthy belief that “this too shall pass” and tomorrow will be better than today has kept us moving forward through some really bleak, horrible, and desperate times. It is the inspiration and vision of tomorrow that keeps us going when things get overwhelmingly, crushingly bad.

Yet, pushed too far, both are crippling. Pessimism can convince us to never try, never strive, always suspect, always fear. The world looms big and we see everything both beyond our control and against us. Optimism can convince us we can do anything, to jump and leap without thought, preparation, or contingencies. We see everything and everyone as good: we trust those we shouldn’t and take on responsibilities we can’t handle. When we make blatantly irrational decisions, one of these mindsets has a bigger hold on us than it should.

Fear/pain/pessimism and hope/pleasure/optimism are hardwired into us for survival – it’s a part of the human condition and always operating in the background. It is so constant that it’s easy to overlook, to forget about, to think that us humans are now too sophisticated for such primitive drives. Yet, when we look for it, it’s pretty easy to see how fear/pain/pessimism and hope/pleasure/optimism shows up in business and our daily lives. Every product or service advertised, everything you’ve ever purchased, every career choice you’ve ever made has been out of fear of pain or hope of pleasure – likely both.

Ok, I’m not a psychologist – these are just observations and ideas I’ve picked up over the years. I don’t know for sure that it’s true or not. But if it’s true, how does that change how you sell, lead, dream, or decide? If it’s always there whether we give it’s due or not, how can you use it to your advantage to improve your communication, inspire others, and get out of your own way to play bigger?

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