I’ve seen a lot written lately about the mental impact of poverty. The trigger was probably this article, which originally began as a long comment on Gawker:
The author shares her experiences living in poverty, and the psychological struggles she faces. The key passage is probably this one:
“It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”
Derek Thompson at The Atlantic provided some context for this statement, writing:
“As Andrew Golis points out, this might suggest something even deeper than the idea that poverty’s stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions. The inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily on the author that s/he abandons long-term planning entirely, because the short term needs are so great and the long-term gains so implausible. The train is just not coming. What if the psychology of poverty, which can appear so irrational to those not in poverty, is actually “the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes,” he wrote.”
Together, these passages capture the paradox of hope. On the one hand, hope is somewhat irrational; if it wasn’t, we’d call it “reasonable expectations for the future.” On the other hand, hope that is never fulfilled leads to disillusion and despair. Hope is a stretch goal–it needs to be slightly but not completely unrealistic.
With hope, we can defer gratification and make plans for the future. Without it, we fall into the path of least resistance, no matter how negative the expected value.
While you may never find yourself living in poverty (I wouldn’t wish that hardship on anyone I know), you can generalize the principles of hope to apply to leadership and management, especially in the startup world.
When hope dies, so does your company. Fill people with hope. Just recognize that hope without fulfillment is the same as no hope at all.