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Optimism: The Most Important Trait for 2021

Optimism: The Most Important Trait for 2021

On the icy glaciers of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, I plodded one step at a time on a rope team toward a summit we didn't know whether we could reach. On the lower mountain, snowshoes distributed our weight across the snow-covered glaciers, and we pulled sleds with our gear behind us.

Beginning at 11,000 feet, we wore crampons instead, the freezing wind having scoured the surface of the glaciers and leaving only ice for our travel. Above 14,000 feet, we carried our packs and left the sleds behind; the headwall was far too steep for sleds, and we were able to leave some provisions for our descent.

Success in climbing Denali hovers around only 50%. On our team, it would be even lower. Whether it is altitude-induced edemas or another sickness, bad weather (a common culprit), or another reason, making it to the top of a peak in excess of 20,000 feet in the far northern reaches of the globe remains precariously difficult.

[Related: End-of-Year: Vision, Strategy, and Intention]

One of the members of our rope team, who would not summit, was a middle-aged man who was utterly fed up with me. I'll call him Joe. In our team journal, he wrote about the 19-year-old who kept saying “awesome,” and I’m betting his assessment was right.

Joe found my optimism annoying, in part because he and I were opposites. His complaining continued even under sunny skies with breakfast in our bellies. At some point, our even-tempered cheerful guide John snapped at him.

Joe climbed the headwall with us on an acclimatization day, but back at 14,000 feet complained of a searing headache and dropped off the team. Our guide John and I were the only ones to summit, about a week later, after the final team member dropped, suffering from high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) at high camp (17,000). I don’t know if Joe would have made it or not with a better attitude, but no matter how fit he might have been, he had no chance with the way he faced challenges.

I learned on that mountain something that’s been shown to be true repeatedly over other challenges, something I explore in greater detail in chapter five of The Grit Factor: Optimism is absolutely key to success. There are other considerations as well, of course, but optimism, an attitude that the necessary work is possible no matter how challenging and a positive perspective on that challenge, is absolutely non-negotiable.

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Of course, optimism is different from being a Pollyanna. In several studies looking at prisoners of war, how they survived their unbelievably difficult confinements, and how well they integrated into normal life on their return, optimism was found to be the most important factor for survival and a healthy return to a normal life.

Admiral James Stockdale is famous for warning against unbridled optimism — those optimists did not survive, he would say in his interview with Jim Collins in his business classic Good to Great. It’s a grounded optimism that is so important, an utterly unwavering faith that you will surmount the challenge that is necessary, balanced with a realistic view of the difficulties ahead.

The challenges of 2020 were impossible to overstate, and the new year has brought only a glimmer of hope. Many challenges and a long road still lie ahead for navigation of the global pandemic and associated economic challenges, as well as for the implications of social and political unrest.

Optimism, like any other outlook, is a choice, even and perhaps especially in the face of difficulty. Choosing to face the challenges of today with grounded optimism will get you up whatever mountain you may be facing and through any difficulty. Modeling that optimism will support your team in their ascents.

As we begin this new year, what will you choose? Join me. We will get through this together.

[Related: Innovative Steps for Putting Success in Motion]


Shannon Huffman Polson is one of the first women to fly the Apache in the US Army, a leadership speaker for Keppler Speakers and an author. Her memoir North of Hope was released in paperback on August 1, and she publishes profiles of The Grit Project on, where she is a Top Leadership writer. She can be found at The Grit Project checklist is yours at

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