Optimism: Valuing Success Honestly

The pessimist argues: most things don’t work out in an ideal way, and entropy is the way of all systems, so to be realistic, let’s err on the side of lower ambition. Pessimism, which often calls itself “realism”, is a claim to prophetic vision. The pessimist becomes invested in the reliability of negative prophecy. So the advocate for pessimism migrates from emotional investment in good outcomes to emotional investment in the idea that if it’s a good thing, it won’t be possible and ultimately to the deep and tangled self-binding we call cynicism. It is in contrast to this view that we are told the optimist is one who likes to be hopeful, despite all the ills of this world. Optimism is often described as “positive thinking”, but it is actually something very different and far more powerful than that.

Optimism is, by definition, aiming for the optimum—the best result within the realm of the possible. If the best possible result at this moment slips into verifiable impossibility, then what way of proceeding in the world could be more rational, clear-headed, or serious, than to aim for what is now the best result within the realm of the possible? Optimism is no-nonsense. It requires the application of evolving, interactive, imaginative intelligence. Instead of dwelling on the wisdom of identifying the glass as half full, the optimist seeks the best outcome. This is what builds the world. This is how we avoid disaster and achieve ingenious innovations. Optimism has physical and economic value that its detractors cannot match.

Like trust, rule of law, literacy, and civil liberties, optimism makes the world we want possible. It is an intangible value, not a measurable quantity or tradable commodity, but most everything else that has value to us depends more or less directly on the leading role optimism plays in shaping our world. That something so intrinsic to our ability to identify, work through, and solve major challenges is intangible, invisible, not commodified, and not priced in dollars, means the whole way of thinking, seeing, and doing “optimistically” feels elusive to people worried about guaranteed outcomes.

Many strong and effective team efforts break down as the allure of using one’s intelligence to demand a guaranteed outcome infiltrates the coordinated problem-solving that was holding the team effort together. This is why some business leaders cheat to pad their balance sheets, why many lawmaking processes hinge on horse-trading, and why too many political regimes rig the voting process that decides who will rule. None of these can be described as optimistic behaviors, and all defend themselves as “realist”. Incidentally, realism is a 19th-century literary conceit, not a prophetic strategy for achieving good outcomes. Do you want your military planners, airplane engineers, or physicians, borrowing their strategic approach from 19th-century novels and prophetic urges, or from lived experience consciously oriented toward achieving the best possible outcome?

When we have doubts about whether an optimistic approach is a good bet, we must remember that pessimism is no more material than optimism, and tangible, visible, commodified values, priced in dollars, do not, in any way, guarantee a desired outcome. The better one is at visualizing the best outcome, the more likely one is to hone the skills needed to achieve it. If we spend our talent and insight building scenarios of projected despair, instead of working toward the optimum, we lose sight of the true nature of the landscape in which we are operating.

Success, if and when we live it, is successful optimization of our interactions with resources—those resources including physical, economic, and political limitations, and our approach to maneuvering around them, or turning them to our advantage. Visualization of the optimal gives us leverage in time, space, and human circumstance; stylized negative prophecy does not. So, if there is value you want to realize, identify the best possible route to the best possible result, and work at it through all you know to be real.

[ The Note for July 2015 ]


Just a few of the optimists who are out to solve difficult problems, by visualizing the best possible outcome, then working intentionally to achieve it:

A Note on Reaching Saturn’s Rings

The featured image at the top of the article is an artist’s rendering of the Cassini space probe, visiting Saturn. The kind of work NASA engineers do, building these complex devices, and deploying them to the far reaches of the Solar System, is not done by pessimists. There is no time to be wasted with negative prophecy when you are trying to make human technology capable of reaching, observing, and reporting back from, the rings of Saturn.

Disruptive Optimism for Serious Change

The optimist is the rational actor who is insistent enough on rational action to aim for the best outcome within the realm of the possible. The optimal, while within the realm of the possible, may actually remain beyond the reach of all that we yet know. Closed spaces for discussion of ideas are inclined to incomplete thinking. No expert knows everything we need to know about past, present, and future, much less about as yet over-the-horizon shifts in the landscape. If we limit the number of minds available to the task, then limit the kind of thoughts those minds are supposed to prefer, then limit the language through which they are allowed to express their ideas, the field of information exchange will be limited, though the stakes may be global and existential.

Imagination, not Dispassionate Imprecision

Nabokov would tell students to work “with the passion of a scientist and the precision of a poet.” We are now, as a society, in danger of losing both. We ask scientists to be simply readers of facts, not impassioned explorers, and we misunderstand poetry as a pleasant indulgence, not as the linguistic and expressive frontiersmanship that it is. To deaden both of these for a generation of talents is to deprive our own future economy of what is most valuable: free people dignified by a capacity for the sublime and an aversion to the grave costs of dispassionate imprecision.


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