Why you Shouldn’t be a (False) Optimist

Optimism is a foundational value of a good life. If we don’t believe that we have any agency to improve our lives, we can quickly fall into stagnation and then decay (moral, financial, relational, or otherwise). What I suggest we be wary of is a sense of false optimism. This is a slight play on the idea of indefinite optimism described by Peter Thiel. False optimism is a close concept to the idea of determinism; the idea that things are the way they are because of events outside of our control. While it is certainly true to say that there are influences beyond our control, it is a defeatist mentality to say that those are the only (or even most important factors) in our success or failure. We would call a farmer who doesn’t plant in the spring and then complains in the winter a fool. Likewise, we wouldn’t call a farmer who plants in the spring and a blizzard wipes out his crop lazy and entitled.

When we want to advance, we have to take advice from definite optimists. I have written about this before. Successful people suffer from selection bias. Many successful people are indeed self-made, but some have hidden advantages that run unaccounted for. For example, being a good sprinter is determined largely by your muscle fiber composition aka genetics. So if we take advice from an elite sprinter, chances are we are getting advice from someone who is successful in spite of their advice, not because of it. Does that make sense? Similarly if we take business advice from a Harvard graduate, they will likely fail to tell you (to no fault of their own) about the importance of industry connections and support systems.

Things will “Sort Themselves Out”

Things don’t always sort themselves out. And if they do, there is a curse hidden in that blessing. A false optimist will overestimate internal factors and underestimate external factors. For example, when a baby-boomer tells a millennial to “get a job” and “start a family” they think that the external conditions that were present for them are present for millennials. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Graduating into a recession, seeing the highest income inequality in decades, and continual government non-intervention are factors that are present in the experience of millennial but mostly not present for baby boomers while they were coming of age.

On the other side of the coin, a false optimist is also likely to underestimate internal factors and overestimate external factors. This is the danger of being too extreme in either direction. Religiosity can be a form of false optimism. Instead of taking steps to improve a situation, someone could say “it is what it is”, or “let go and let God”. While these statements are true at times, we must always do our due diligence. I had a co-worker explain this perfectly when saying: “Pray like it depends on Him (God) and work like it depends on you”.

A true optimist has balanced expectations. They study both the internal and external factors that are working for and against them. They know that their actions will determine their future, but they are not simple-minded in thinking that there are no external factors at play. Lending back to the example of the farmer, they do their part to plant in the spring and tend in the summer, and they have hope that they will harvest in the fall. But they are not naive to think that forces outside of their control (an early frost for example) have no effect.

I think everyone should be an optimist. Optimism requires that we do reconnaissance of our situation and plan and execute to the best of our ability. There will certainly be things out of our control, just as likely as there will be things in our control. If we plan and take action, we can rest easier, both in our successes and in our defeats.

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