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Practical Optimists, Arise!

With all of the bad news that pervades our collective conversation lately, one might wonder if the end of the world really is near. We are running out of money, of oil, of water, of food, of jobs, of health, of hope…

I was listening to the podcast of “Real Time With Bill Maher“, where one of his guests was the renowned astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Dr. Tyson asked the question: “Have we lost the ability to dream?”. Back in the 1950s and 1960s. general-interest magazines were full of articles about “the city of tomorrow” and “the home of tomorrow”. Where is this kind of future projection today? Now we project “peak oil” and “water wars”. It’s like pessimism is the new black, and optimism is out of style, old-fashioned, naive and silly.

Why has optimism taken a back seat? Why do we let the pessimists have all the fun?

The succession of crises and dramas and bad news that surrounds us, even if we don’t live it immediately in our lives, creates a sense of helplessness. The problems we hear about are so much bigger than us, and they dominate every moment of our collective consciousness.

The renowned psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman, in his book “Learned Optimism” describes the distinction between optimism and pessimism as how we interpret and react to setbacks:

Optimism – reacting to setbacks from a presumption of personal power:

– Bad events are temporary setbacks
– Isolated to particular circumstances
– Can be overcome by my effort and abilities

Pessimism – reacting to setbacks from a presumption of personal helplessness:

– Bad events will last a long time
– Will undermine everything I do
– Are my fault

Dr Seligman proposes that optimism is a skill that can be learned, and which must be exercised to grow stronger. In the end, overcoming adversity is not about luck or prayer or someone else coming to the rescue. It is about assuming our personal power, seeing the temporary nature of the adversity and choosing to invest the effort to overcome the situation. Optimism is a question of will.

The challenge is that our collective conversation has turned towards the elements of pessimism: that the failures of the past will continue into the future, and that there is nothing we can do to change this bad situation, so it is better to do nothing.

Which is why I believe that the key to recovery is to re-learn how to be an optimist, to make it fashionable again. Not pie-in-the-sky, wishful optimism, but what I call “practical optimism”, an optimism grounded in two fundamental principles: faith and fact.

The first foundation of practical optimism is faith in a mission – a clarity about who we are, our values and our principles, a reason for being – and a faith in a vision, seeing adversity not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to define and prove our worth.

The second foundation of practical optimism is fact: that a solution to the problem set before us can be engineered from science and art. Humanity has overcome major challenges in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Individuals every day triumph over adversity, it’s just we don’t hear enough about it.

The practical optimist recognizes the challenge, but doesn’t let it become larger than her. The question she asks is not “is there a solution?”, but rather “what is the solution?”. The practical optimist assumes success by becoming bigger than the obstacle.

The dual faith-fact foundation of optimism also makes it fragile. The biggest danger for the practical optimism is not pessimism, but cynicism. The construction of a house takes time, but blowing it up is a spectacular show. In the age of the sound bite, being able to point out a flaw or a hole in a plan is easy, which is why cynics rule the conversation if left unchecked. The practical optimist needs to protect his faith zealously.

The past is past, available for all to study and interpret. The present is the present. Tracing a line from these two points toward the future is simple, and it will usually point to more of the same.

However this reasoning is deeply flawed. If the future could be predicted by a straight line from the past, we would still be living in caves and wearing animal skins.

The natural state of human activity is not excellence, it’s mediocrity. Striving for excellence means exerting effort to break this tendancy towards mediocrity and bend the projection curve upward. To move the projection, we need to push with all our might, give it all we have. Half-measures are not sufficient, because eventually the inertia of the status-quo takes over and nothing changes.

It is the duty of the practical optimist to disrupt the projection towards mediocrity by proposing a vision and taking massive action that disrupts the status quo. The practical optimist’s foundation in faith and fact becomes a leverage point to move the projection, transforming a problem into an opportunity, and an opportunity into a new reality.

The future doesn’t have to be a projection of the past. The past is history. The present is just a temporary condition. It is up to you to imagine the future you really want, and to make it happen. No one else will do it for you.

Any “problem”, whether in our society or in our personal life, does not have to be terminal. You have overcomed adverse situations before, and you will do so in the future.

As Matt Ridley , author of “The Rational Optimist” says:
Am I saying that we should cease worrying about trends that might cause problems? Of course not. I am arguing that we should worry about real problems, including Africa’s plight, but that we should do so in the knowledge that we have solved many such problems before and can do so again. I am certainly not saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Rather, I’m saying, “Don’t despair, be ambitious”—though I admit it’s not nearly as snappy a song lyric.

For more information

Inspiration for this line of thought:

Real Time With Bill Maher (podcast): Episode #223 (broadcast 5 Aug 2011)

Martin Seligman: Learned Optimism (book)

Dr. Seligman’s site:

Learned Optimism (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_optimism

Matt Ridley: The Rational Optimist (blog and book)

Sarah Robinson: Escaping Mediocrity (blog)

Drew Westin: What Happened To Obama’s Passion? (NYTimes)

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