Since the swine flu didn’t turn out to be a disaster we were warned it could be, some have complained that government officials and media “over-responded.”  In all fairness, the media does have a habit of sensationalizipigng the news to get us to stay glued to the television.  It works because often we don’t seem to pay attention unless they convey a real sense of urgency.  There’s so much demanding our attention, that the thing that screams loudest usually wins.  But the CDC and others were in a no-win situation – either shift into high gear as though millions of lives were in danger, even if they actually weren’t, or play it cool and risk that millions of lives were not in danger when they actually were.

 It’s easy, in hind sight, to say, “They should have known better.”  Optimism is great, but officials and the media would have been criticized if they’d been too optimistic.  I’m a born optimist.  Give me any situation and I can see the bright side of it.  But I also know that optimism isn’t always the best approach – especially in risky scenarios.  Think about it.  Do you want an optimistic engineer to design the bridge you drive across every day?  Do you want an optimistic doctor who tells you your unusual, persistent headache is probably nothing and sends you home without running some tests?  Do you want the optimistic CPA who doesn’t cross every “t” and dot every “i” because she figures the likelihood of an IRS audit is slim?  No.  In some situations, you want the pessimist – the person who sees everything that might go wrong, and takes precautions to protect you.

 In the end, we lost a few days of school for a few hundred thousand kids (I’m sure the kids aren’t upset about this!), some extra time spent washing our hands, and a few extra dollars on those little bottles of hand sanitizer.  It’s a small price to pay to be safe – and it may be because of those actions that fewer people became sick.  Granted, other possibly more important news stories received less attention or none at all.  But it is hindsight that helps us see that.

 As a personal and executive coach, I see a practical life lesson in the handling of the swine flu pandemic.  Psychology research shows the most successful people are those who can balance optimism with strategic pessimism.  In other words, they are optimistic about the future, but also realistic about risks.  They are willing to take precautions, even if those precautions are inconvenient, because they’d rather be prepared for what might go wrong rather than ignore reality.  Where do you need to apply this type of wisdom in your life?  Consider the key areas of your life – your finances, relationships, health and work – and answer these coaching questions:

  •  In what area of your life do you need to take note of potential risks or looming problems? 
  • What action(s) could you take to reduce your risk and lessen the impact of an unexpected emergency, if it were to appear?
  • When will you take action?

 Valorie Burton is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) is the author of five books, including What’s Really Holding You Back?Listen to Your Life, and How Did I Get So Busy?The 28-Day Plan to Free Your Time, Reclaim Your Schedule and Reconnect with What Matters Most.  Subscribe to her free e-newsletter at and follow her at