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Theory U Opticist

Do U trust the world? Theory U and Opticism

  • 07 January 2014
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

“A case for optimism” is an inspiring video by Tiffany Shlain. Opticism is optimism with a healthy dose of skepticism: a “questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.” Let’s become an “opticist”: Let’s not be naive, but let’s focus consciously on the half full glass and see how we can fill it even further...

The world in general has become less violent, but watching the news things seem to have become worse. When we look at negative things all the time, they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We may become discouraged and act accordingly. We could develop an attitude of cynicism: we believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest; we become distrustful of human sincerity or integrity. And we will see the evidence to confirm this world view everywhere.

Especially if we are tired and stressed-out. If you check your email 26 times an hour - what happens to your adrenaline levels...? Thus, what happens to the way you perceive the world? You get restless, your organism is aroused: it is hurry and fight-or-flight. You arrive in a mind set of danger and empty glasses everywhere.

Cynicism kills Contribution

Skepticism is useful critical thinking but cynicism is a dark belief. It is a place where I don’t like to be. The world feels terrible if I choose to distrust. It creates a negative mood in which I’m not half as happy nor as fruitful as I can be. I deliver my best contribution when I have faith: that even small things might create huge positive outcomes later on, or emerge somewhere.

Residing in cynicism, I feel bad and I’m energy-sucking company. Choosing my Opticist worldview, I feel empowered most of the time. Though we all have days that we see the empty glass and shocking things still happen - I’m not blind, nor am I in denial, dumb or naïve. But I choose to trust. Simply because it’s the best for me and the world - it keeps me going so I can contribute.

Theory U to Change

This Opticist attitude somehow evokes a strong response among the cynics - as I discovered in some discussions. The tone even became a bit condescending - someone labeled Opticism “dreaming”.

Cynicism probably has the best of intentions: it tries to protect you from further disappointments, hurt and harm. It started as the voice of common sense that helped you to “get real”...

Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, acknowledges Cynicism as an obstacle to learning and change in his Theory U.


The voice of judgment is the first roadblock to being fully present in the here and now. Being present is a necessary condition to learning and change. Theory U explains how judgment closes the mind. Judgment helps you categorize the overwhelming world: true-not true, good-bad, etc. It can be utterly tiring to have an open mind all the time and judging keeps the world feasible.


But then the judgments turned toxic, or you got stuck in them - and the next thing you knew, is you closed your heart. Here’s the second roadblock - the voice of Cynicism. You’ve been hurt, you’ve seen your judgments confirmed, you see the half-empty glass, you feel the negativity of the world and you cope by saying: “Hey, get real, the world is a rotten place. Didn’t I tell you? Get over it!” You condemn the positive-believers who really seem naive, not so well-informed and utterly irritating. Maybe you envy their positive energy, deep down, because you remember that it felt good.


Underneath cynicism lies the third level: fear. We want to protect ourselves. Don’t want to get hurt again. Don’t want to lose once more. We need some control and security. We need to be safe. Here’s the level where you closed your “will”. You’re not willing to open your heart and open your mind. Here’s where we need to be courageous. Open our minds (to let other possibilities in and to question our beliefs) and our hearts (to assume that maybe - the world could be positive - and to feel again).
Courageously we meet and greet our fears, see how they tried to keep us safe, thank them and let them go.

Courageous Opticists

Transcending fear is what great people do. Like Nelson Mandela: What if he had gotten cynical? And did he have every reason to become the most bitter man you’d ever met! He would have turned into an energy-sucking black hole. But he didn’t. That’s why we admire him. He overcame the three voices that keep you from sensing the present: fear, cynicism and judgment. He forgave his enemies and collaborated with them to create a better world.

Look at Pope Francis, chosen “person of the year” by Time Magazine. He has urged the Catholic Church not to be obsessed with "small-minded rules" and to emphasize compassion over condemnation in dealing with topics like abortion, gays and contraception. He has denounced the world's "idolatry of money" and the "global scandal" that nearly 1 billion people today go hungry. He practices what he preaches: he’s humble, he listens, he role models the behaviors he wants to see in the world. I am so glad he’s not cynical.

1.5 times Planet Earth

“We are collectively creating results nobody wants”, says Otto Scharmer. We currently use 1.5 times Planet Earth and 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day and people are excluded, experience lack of meaning and feel depressed. Did Otto Scharmer despair and started watching TV on the couch? No, he tried to find out how change could succeed. In our interview he shows himself an opticist: “Many people feel fatigue about change. The traditional approaches of change miss two dimensions: the consciousness dimension or the personal level of change. And the second dimension missing is that of the larger societal transformation. Maybe we’re not even pushing the envelope enough! There’s a lot more possible than we are trying.”

Every one of us, famous or not, can make a positive contribution to changing the world. But only if we choose to believe in Opticism. Together, we create the system’s capacity. There’s not one leader who can do it for us. We have a few great role models - but each human needs to do his or her work.

Issue 3 of Leadership & Change magazine features the full interview with Otto Scharmer on his new book: “Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-system to Eco-system Economies - Applying Theory U to transforming business, society and self.”

Check out issue #3 of Leadership & Change magazine:

  • Award-winning leadership writer Tanveer Naseer interviews Harvard Professor Teresa Amabile and Dr. Steven Kramer about their book "The Progress Principle"
  • Executive Karin Hurt ponders the question how large or small a “professional distance” could be - when leading others is about relating to them
  • Organization consultant Terrence Seamon wants the world to “Change for the Better” and discusses his favorite change tools
  • International consultant Brian Fulghum shares an amazing case of making “Grace” a core value in an organization in Pakistan to avoid “revenge” in the workplace
  • Author and consultant Leslie Yerkes pleas for paying attention to the life lessons that are happening to you and what she learned from a stray dog...
  • Isn’t it time to flip you focus from boss-oriented to customer-oriented? A short reminder by consultant Penny Loveless
  • Manager Mike McDougall shares his admiration for Dave Brailsford, the British Olympic cycle team coach and how he implements “ownership” at work
  • Plus events and inspirational resources about meaning and money, stress, complexity, global empathy, integrity and the Case for Optimism by Tiffany Shlain!

Subscribe today!

Thank you for your patience if you don’t own an iPad or iPhone. The Android version will be available in the first quarter of 2014.

Marcella Bremer
is the co-founder of OCAI online, a change consultant and author on change, culture and leadership. She also is the editor of Leadership & Change Magazine.

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