Newsletter – Optimism

Optimism as a Strategy


  1. Optimism as a Strategy
  2. Quote of the Month


There always seems to be someone willing to tell you why an idea won’t work, or offer a negative interpretation of events. Often these well-intentioned people call this attitude being “realistic” or “practical.” Given the events of the past month, and the economic challenges of our time, I see their point. I must admit that being a pessimist this year would have stood you in good stead if you wanted to be “right.” Ben Franklin said he preferred to be a pessimist because optimists are always disappointed, but pessimists are continually delighted.

What’s the catch? This approach ignores the influence of our attitudes and beliefs on our life experience. It is well known that eye witnesses at a crime scene cannot accurately recall events. Research at the University of Puget Sound has shown that the brain will do whatever it takes to assemble a story about what happened, even to the point of generating false memories. Interpretation makes up the majority of our life experience. As a physicist, I am fond of this story: Albert Einstein explained relativity by noting that time spent chatting with a lovely girl seems to pass very quickly, while time spent sitting on a hot stove seems to pass quite slowly.

Sometimes pessimistic interpretations are labeled “realistic,” “practical” or “right.” But these words sound a lot more concrete than the underlying ideas they represent. People tend to use these words to squash ideas that make them uncomfortable, or to undermine what is beyond their own experience of what’s possible. And many of us have, from time to time, shielded ourselves from disappointment by keeping a lid on our optimism.

Now, I’m not advocating being a naive, rose-colored-glasses wearing optimist just for the sake of being “chipper.” No, actually I find this approach rather off-putting. I am recommending using optimism as a strategy for being effective, much like Noam Chomsky in this quote:

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, it’s unlikely you will step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume that there’s no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.” – Noam Chomsky

I invite you to experiment with how your interpretation of the facts affects your experience of life. Make up different interpretations of the same event, including one that is ridiculously positive and one that is extremely negative. Then adopt an interpretation that gives you more traction in the situation. As long as we’re making it up we might as well make up something that helps us make a difference.


“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” -A. Camus

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