Dear Optimist

How are you?  Great, no doubt.  You always say that.

But seriously, it’s been a tough time for you lately, hasn’t it?  I know your policy is always to see life’s glass half-full.  You’re so good at keeping your chin up; turning those lemons into lemonade. You always focus on the other fish in the sea; you never dwell long on the one that got away.  Nothing will shake your belief that the closing of one door leads cheeringly to the opening of another.  You travel with the unshakeable belief that, however difficult the journey, its delays and deviations will all make sense backwards.  You float through your days with lightness of spirit, however many sandbags are tethered to your balloon.  You’re always a cork; never a stone.

You’ll rightly point out that optimism is good for us.  There’s a stack of evidence to support this.  Optimism has many a vocal sponsor, present and past.  You’ll point doubters to numerous nuggets of upbeat wisdom.  Such as this, from one of those great optimists who triumphed, always with humility, over the obstacles she faced:

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit’.

Helen Keller, author and activist (1880 – 1968)

You and your kind walk together on hope’s mossy ground. Air-cushioned shoes soften your steps.  But…

Even you must have felt the earth tremble and shake beneath your springy feet.  Even you must be struggling to see the upside these days.  Even the most clear-eyed spotter of the silver-lining has had her work cut out of late.  As 2020 turned into 2021, the champagne corks popped in muted domestic isolation.  Fresh hopes gathered, but the new year has brought more difficulty.  The light is at the end of the tunnel, you’ll say.  I believe you.  But even you must admit that the tunnel keeps getting longer.   

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m right with you.  Optimism is the way forward. 

In fact, I learn that there are lots of types of optimism, so I should be more precise.  Most optimism is good for you.  Yet, as with most things in life, used to excess, it can turn bad. 

I don’t want to spoil the mood.  But I need to ask.  Can you see any downsides to our optimism?  Well, naturally, you’ll be too interested in the upsides to pay that notion too much attention.  But, it seems, we optimists need to keep it real.  If you insist (as I do) on being so upbeat all the time, we do need to make sure you stand close to the pessimists from time to time and let them speak.  We optimists need to listen to them carefully. 

Optimism bias can do real harm to your strategic planning.  You always tend to interpret the numbers, the data, into the best-case scenario.  Make sure you have some doomsters around you to paint it black.  That way, you’ll have a more rounded plan. 

In an uncertain or rapidly changing business situation, the optimist’s relative disregard for detail, selective inattention to unpromising data and failure to seek new information combine to produce poorly-informed decisions.  So, we optimists need to keep our eyes open to the detail.  And make sure that we share it with others who will likely interpret things differently.  They may spot that the half-full glass has a crack in it.

Optimism bias is a main cause of the chronic inability accurately to anticipate the costs of big projects.  This has been a major issue for governments and private companies for decades.  The grand, compelling vision was so mesmerising that the numbers lost their power to communicate.

Do you mind my asking, how are your personal finances?  Well, yes, it’s not a very polite enquiry but research has shown that similar factors affect personal finance decisions.  Why do so many people consistently pick credit card options that really don’t help them?  Investigations found that people often choose credit cards with a low annual fee and high APR, despite the fact that they regularly fail to clear their balances and pay much more than if they had a higher fee, lower APR card. These are the optimists.  Or are they the putters-off?  The evaders of reality?  The high fee is an immediate but solvable problem (opt for the smaller fee) and the more distant possible failure to pay off the balance thus accruing interest, is an event they believe will somehow not really happen.

It’s just an example.  As is that fact that the high general optimism of children, especially boys, seems to be a contributory factor to accidental injury in childhood.  Sorry to strike a gloomy note again, but it seems that the risk-taker will often be the optimist; and that optimists get hurt more often.  They find it harder to believe that bad things could happen.  This general disposition is surely a strength, isn’t it?   Perhaps a virtue?  

Aristotle’s theory of the Golden Mean suggests, we should avoid extremes.  Global optimism is not clever.  Too much exposure to the bright side will damage your sight permanently.  Courage, un-tempered, is recklessness.  Optimism needs to be tempered by realism; annealed in the furnace of fact.  Optimism, un-tempered, will take some into cloud cuckoo land, a state of optimistic fantasy.  This may be a lovely state of being for a moment, but life’s problems cannot be solved or endured by escape or delusion.  Optimism is a rosy filter but it cannot change the image itself.  The way we view life will help us to address issues that must – in reality – be met firmly on their own hard ground.

Which leads us back to the moment. These current times have put a dent in the soul of every optimist, surely. Even the corkiest of us must be feeling the gravitational pull of the deep. With good reason: we are living in dark, difficult days. And yet…   

Where does this leave us in our optimism?  As the Swedish proverb goes: “Those who wish to sing will always find a song”.  Yes, we must keep singing our songs. 

We must keep counting our blessings. 

And remember to ask a friendly pessimist to check our arithmetic from time to time.

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