Warning: This post may disappoint you.
Take a look around the world today and you’ll see an abundance of optimism.
Life is great, things will only get better, we’re all going to succeed.
And we expect to be right, too. You’ll land the girl of your dreams, all your friends and family will live long healthy lives, you won’t get sick, your startup will make millions, your marriage will be happy until death do you part.
Things go wrong, the world is unpredictable, chaotic. Things change, people die, everything has flaws including the ones we love and ourselves.
Life is a near-death experience. — Alain de Botton
Are we better to ignore this and live in optimistic bliss until the painful stuff happens? That seems to be what most of us do.
Or should we expect the worst, plan for it, be a little stressed and unhappy, but also be able to handle the bad things as they come, and also enjoy the surprisingly good things that we didn’t expect?
The jury’s still out.
You Call Yourself An Optimist?
Before we start labeling each other and making outrageous presumptions about what’s wrong with either side, I feel it makes sense to get a few misconceptions out of the way.
For starters, it’s a spectrum. One optimist may be more or less optimistic than another. While someone in the very middle would likely qualify as a realist, but don’t get me started on those dudes.
People don’t just sit in the same spot all the time, we all shift back and forth depending on the situation and what details/ideas we have about it, and especially our mood.
I might be labeled a pessimist in one situation (for instance, in writing this depressing post), but an optimist in another (for example, in expecting you to read it).
For the most part we might be more inclined to lean one way over the other, but I think it’s unfair to be labeled or feel stuck with one over the other. Why can’t we be both? An optimistic pessimist? An omnimist? Or an ambimist??
Optimism, pessimism, fuck that. We’re going to make it happen. — Elon Musk
At The Extreme
At the most pessimistic end of the spectrum, the view becomes so shrouded in dread that anything requiring effort might be seen as impossible. I don’t think many people occupy this space.
I think it’s more likely that people see the tasks as very difficult. But if that means you prepare for the worst, that you have a plan B, and you realize going in that this will take effort, then pessimism might be an aid.
Of course if it results in lethargy and depression then a new outlook is definitely recommended, no questions there.
At the optimistic end, the view is all rainbows and fairies, everything will go right, you’ll succeed and there’s no need to worry about what could go wrong because it won’t. This optimist waltzes in all blasé and carefree, beautifully confident and blissfully unaware of the gruesome shitstorm that awaits.
I exaggerate of course, but I do think more people occupy this space than the pessimistic.
We have this thing somewhere in our minds called an optimism bias. It’s the tendency for us to believe we’re less at risk of some terrible occurrence than others, and also that we’re just a little better than everyone else in other areas of life.
Answer these questions as honestly as you can, by thinking about what percentage of the population you fit in:
Are you a good driver?
What’s the chance your marriage goes the distance?
How great is your business idea?
What’s the chance you get cancer?
Are you funny?
Are you attractive?
Are you modest?
How did you rank yourself? Above 50% in most of them? Do you think most of the other people that answered them also felt the same? You know they did, so someone’s wrong — it might be you…
For the record, about 40-50% of marriages end in divorce, between 80–90% of startups fail, there’s a 30% chance you’ll get cancer, and thankfully we’ll soon have self-driving cars because we’re all awful at that.
Come To The Dark Side
Alain de Botton notes that too much optimism can hold us back from good opportunities — wait, what!?
If you’re convinced that you can find the perfect partner, someone that shares all your interests, that’s beautiful, funny, intelligent, and just gets you, then you could end up passing on a number of potentially great partners just because of some stupid incompatibilities.
The same goes for a good job, a nice place to live, and almost any decision that we feel we can get perfectly right.
This is an idea that psychologist Barry Schwartz echoes when he says that “the secret to happiness is low expectations”
Sometimes there is no perfect, we need to know how to settle for less, something the more pessimistic among us have down to a T.
In the business and social worlds, confidence and optimism are loved and lauded. As Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking Fast and Slow:
Optimistic individuals play a disproportionate role in shaping our lives. Their decisions make a difference; they are the inventors, the entrepreneurs, the political and military leaders — not average people. They got to where they are by seeking challenges and taking risks.
But if you’re the one employing them, if you’re the one placing your trust in them, how confident are you that your trust is well placed?
Optimists believe they will succeed despite the odds, that they know right from wrong even in unpredictable circumstances.
Have you ever known someone that felt sure of something, and you believed them, you invested in them, only to find out they were wrong? I feel safe in assuming most of us have.
And yet we probably continue to trust them. If the people in our company and in our group of friends were pessimistic — if they readily pointed out the holes in their knowledge, the flaws in your plan, or chose not to take the risk — we’d lose confidence in them.
Perhaps it’s time to look at that negativity and give it as much relevance as the positive. Don’t blindly trust the confident person unless they can back that conviction up. If someone is more pessimistic, don’t write them off as if they clearly know less, when it might be that they’re being more honest, or, dare I say it…realistic…
The evidence suggests that optimism is widespread, stubborn, and costly. — Daniel Kahneman
So, are you disappointed?
Did you want to be reassured that your optimistic, confident, and positive outlook is just the best thing in the whole wide world?
To be honest, you should feel good, and considering you’re an optimist, you probably do.
Just keep in mind that some aspects of pessimism can be just as great. Try practicing some strategic pessimism:
- Think about what the worst case scenario is, how bad is it really? Will it matter in a couple of years? How will you deal with it if it happens?
- What can you do to prepare and protect yourself from the things that could go wrong? Do you have a plan B?
- Is your confidence backed by real knowledge or skill? Is it something you just feel or can you explain/demonstrate it? Intuition is notoriously misleading, if you can’t prove why you’re optimistic, you should be questioning it.
- Don’t try to make perfect decisions all the time, try to saticfice–aim for good enough.
- Don’t trust others that are overly confident for the same reason as above. Test their understanding, ask them questions, find out what they don’t know.
- Don’t think that a negative or pessimistic outlook is useless or unwanted. It can be just as important, try to look at the points objectively, don’t let optimism cloud your judgment.
Are All Pessimists Sad?
Before we wrap up, I’d like to point out how I use a pessimistic mindset to increase my happiness and gratefulness.
William James said that Happiness = Expectations / Reality
So in seeking happiness, we can change either reality, or our expectations.
Reality is, despite how we often feel, not well within our control. It’s chaotic and unpredictable, from the weather and global political landscape down to the tiny details of keeping your relationship happy or organizing your time around work and play.
The other option is to lower our expectations. If we think that the world, nay, the universe, is indifferent to us, and that painful and destructive things will continue to happen, then we won’t be so shocked when they do.
The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent. — Carl Sagan
If we accept that the human mind is complex, and that each of us has a different idea of what reality should be, then we won’t be surprised when someone does something we disagree with.
But also, if we see the world as being essentially a tough place to live or prosper—not just as people within societies, but as living creatures on the only planet we know with life, one that’s seen 99% of all other living creatures go extinct — we might also start to see how magical we really are, how we’ve gone against the grain of probability to hit this evolutionary peak in which we’ve designed rockets and computers and outsmarted everything else we’ve ever encountered.
Should we expect everything else to be perfect? Should our businesses all succeed? Should our lives never succumb to poor health and sickness? Should our politicians keep their promises? Should war end and peace ensue?
Maybe one day they will, but not if we all sit back and think it’s going to happen. We shouldn’t see that perfect world as being the way it’s supposed to be, rather, to achieve that would be going against what history, evolution, probability, and human nature tell us is the norm.
If we see life this way, I feel, we become more impressed with the amazing things that we achieve, rather than getting upset at all the injustice and pain there is left. We should still fight to go further, but realize that we should be pretty damn happy with what we’ve done so far.
I’m a pessimist in that I see the world as a painful place, and life as a journey of struggles. But I’m also an optimist in that I think we can find happiness within that, and we can continue to fight against the norm to improve further.