Scott H Young

Cynicism is Easy, Optimism Takes Guts


Just about every way you can measure, the world is a better place today than it was before. Life expectancy is up, poverty down, even most environmental indicators aside from greenhouse gases have improved.

Yet this is never the story. The story is always how the world, despite the nearly consistent progress over the last millennia, will deteriorate in our lifetimes.

Why Is Pessimism Fashionable?

My hypothesis is that pessimism is the safe, easy stance for most beliefs. If you are optimistic, and wrong, you’re a fool. If you foresee doom that never occurs, nobody bothers to correct your errors.

It’s easier to see why pessimism is fashionable, if you think in terms of game theory. The pessimist, if wrong, suffers little public humiliation. He may even be praised for alerting society to possible danger. The optimist is a fool when wrong and receives little praise for correct predictions.

Given these uneven outcomes, it benefits people to appear overly pessimistic. After all, better to seem overly cautious than to be later made a fool.

The Danger in Pessimism

The problem is that pessimism isn’t without costs. Being overly cautious about some risks exposes us to other dangers. This was the case in Africa, where hysteria over GMO foods resulted in more people starving.

The safest thinking is the most rational thinking. Optimism can be dangerous, but so can pessimism—in causing us to choose “safe” options, which cause more problems than uncertain choices.

Riskless, Cynical Attitude

There’s a parallel between pessimism, believing bad things will happen, and cynicism, or general distrust and jadedness. Once again, there’s a lop-sided risk to the publicly stating your beliefs.

Being enthusiastic about a goal or project is risky. If your goal fails, or your hopes dashed, you are naïve and foolish. Before I started this venture, I tried making a computer game (and failed) in high-school. People around me still like to joke about how precocious and naïve that was.

But whether I had the skills or ability to become a computer games developer is beside the point. This business required 5 years of unsupported enthusiasm before it became successful. The same cynics don’t take back their original skepticism, they just pretend they knew it would have worked all along.

Shut Up and Do The Math

The solution isn’t to always be optimistic and never look for the possible downside. Just because you can believe it, doesn’t mean you can achieve it and phony systems like the Law of Attraction are completely divorced from reality.

Unwarranted enthusiasm and optimism have dangers. But so do pessimism and cynicism. The ideal is to be rational about the future, not to be knowingly biased in one direction.

I can already imagine the objections. “Knowledge is impossible!” you say, “we can never escape bias or make accurate decisions.” This is complete garbage. Yes, perfect rationality is impossible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a realistic assessment.

Let’s say you’re starting a new business venture. You could follow societal cynicism and say that 80% of businesses fail. Or you could follow self-help charlatan’s optimism and believe that faith and persistence alone will make you a success.

OR—you could do some research. You could figure out what the path to success typically requires. You could calculate what the start-up costs would be, and see if there is any way you can make small calculated experiments to gain more knowledge of future success. At the very least, you could determine the worst-case scenarios in both decisions and try to minimize potential future regret.

Yes—the future is unknowable. No—predictions will never account for all uncertainties. But this doesn’t mean that cynicism is the default rational choice, simply because you’ll never look foolish.

The Guts to Be Optimistic

Sometimes the math does make cynicism the best guess. I think people getting mortgages they can barely afford for investment properties are idiots. The math doesn’t support their enthusiasm.

But in other cases, the math makes enthusiasm a better choice. When I first started this business, the chance of success was probably low. However the worst case wasn’t bad at all. At the very least, I’d learn something and maybe become a better writer. In the best case, I have a career as a writer. Even if success is unlikely, that’s a gamble I’d like to take.

If your goal is to never look foolish or naïve, cynicism is a good strategy. If you’d rather have an awesome life, shut up, do the math, and ignore the dire prognostications and hype of people around you.


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25 Responses to “Cynicism is Easy, Optimism Takes Guts”

  1. Alexander says:

    I think the trend of pessimism has more to do with our survival instinct of paying more attention when we feel threatened. This causes news organizations to focus on what is wrong in the world (war, hunger, natural disasters…) and politicians to focus on failing policies of their opponents. There is no point in renting ad space to state: “We don’t need your money; the environment is doing fine.” So we get more exposed to pessimism, which then loses its controversy.

  2. gaggar says:

    Hey Scott Thanks!!!

    After reading this article of yours, I came across this:

    “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” ~ Steve Jobs
    There are many diverse opinions about Steve Jobs, and that’s the kind of result that generally follows a person who goes after what he or she wants and finds success. Regardless of how you feel about what he’s created, he had a vision, set out to achieve it, and did. As he notes in this quote and many others, this is your one chance at life. Don’t waste it.

    I don’t know, somehow both the things seemed related to each other to me.

    Thanks for the article.

    Best Regards
    Himanshu

  3. Belinda says:

    I think something else that we might not factor in initially when making decisions and forming opinions, is how much of an effect approaching challenges with positivity has on the process itself.

    The actual benefits of optimism could be enough to tip the solution into success, not neccessarily alone, but in conjunction with everything else (hard work, determination, research etc. and of course a bit of luck).

    This is most obvious in things like trying to build a social life – the more optimistic you are about it working out, the happier you will probably appear, and the more enjoyable you are to be around and so the more friends you could make.

    Unless of course you want a bunch of tortured cynical mates! ;)

  4. Scott, have you heard about the NLP Creativity technique modelled after Walt Disney? Basically when designing and planning a project you step into three roles and try to see it from the viewpoint of each role:

    Dreamer: optimistic, looks at what could be achieved, at the possibilities.

    Critic: pessimistic, looks at which problems could appear down the road, worst-case scenario and counter-measures to that.

    Realist: has an objective view, centered in the “how” to achieve the desired results.

    There’s a lot of literature on that model (just google “dreamer realist critic”) and IMO it’s a great way to balance the different perspectives.

  5. chetan says:

    Hi Scott,

    I like your blog.

    I could relate it more to my life as I have been “trying” to learn how to code for many years but never actually did it properly.

    Maybe i should just take the worst in mind and “just do it” rather than thinking too much what will happen if i never get the desired output…probably something just like starting a blog.

    I guess..taking the first step is very important…rest all just follows.

  6. Jonathan says:

    The world may well be a better place presently, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the likelihood of a catastrophe has never been higher. We have mother nature to contend with (meteors, earthquakes, plagues) but also the ever increasing manmade annihilators (nukes, biological agents, industrial accidents). From a game theorist’s perspective, trouble is inevitable. It really comes down to how we view big picture management. Steven Hawking has suggested we have two centuries to figure out a way to get “our ass to Mars”. It’s important, I believe, to not conflate optimism as a strategy in business or creative pursuits with optimism as a strategy for assessing scientific data. The fact that the world is now a better place to live in than in the past, doesn’t confidently tell us anything more. Looking at that coldly also takes guts. – Jonathan

  7. Sara says:

    Re ” This was the case in Africa, where hysteria over GMO foods resulted in more people starving.”

    I’d disagree – there are large parts of Africa, Nigeria being one example (enough arable but unused land to feed the whole of W/ Coast Africa), where there is plenty of arable land that isn’t being used due to government inefficiencies. Further, of the land being used, a increasing amount of it is being used to grow bio-fuel crops – the current famine in the Horn of Africa being one example where this has had an effect on the health of the local population.

    I realise it’s just a side point to support your argument, but it really isn’t an accurate one at all. It still seems more than probable that GMO crops were not necessary to end hunger in Africa, and other safer options could have had this effect. In this case, introducing GMO crops would have been a bit like giving every citizen a car for transport, when there were train track waiting for trains to go on them – the more sensible option would have been to introduce trains. Or, in this case, actually use the available land for regular food crops. The GMO crop step was an unnecessary one, and one that could have added uncertainty and complications. The rationalist would have therefore rejected it.

    Dig the article though – found a few of your pieces on here very useful. Just figured you’d appreciate a bit of clarification on that point.

  8. eliudrn says:

    Scott, that’s quite an attack on the Law of Attraction, Faith, and Persistence. May I ask then, why would someone who makes efficiency a priority start a professional blog if “the chances of success was probably low”? I also find it interesting how “Law of Attraction” principles turn up in many of your articles, and many of the books that I’ve read without the “Law of Attraction” label. The secret, if you will, and reoccurring theme simply: There is thought, but there must also be action. And to every action, there is a reaction. At 23 Scott, I find it hard to believe that you would have accomplished what you’ve done, without the required faith and persistence that you may be underestimating in yourself. By the way, happy belated birthday and thanks for all the great articles.

  9. Yael, Jerusalem says:

    Hi there,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m a sworn optimistic, and enthusiasm is something very dear to me as a value in life. It’s true that sometimes a person has to ‘do the math’ and look at the situation as it is- but that’s just being rational (another quality I value), not necessarily pessimistic.

    There a cute saying that goes- aim for the moon. even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.
    In many cases, this is very true. People are so afraid to miss the ‘One Big Thing’ that they don’t try at all; even if the worst case scenario is getting something which is also really good.

    Anyways, great post, and it was really great to read what I’ve been thinking for years, in such a clear and balanced way. Thanks!
    (oh, and Happy Birthday!)

  10. Scott Young says:

    Sara,

    The book I link references an incredibly specific and telling example of GMO hysteria and the resulting worsening of a drought in Africa. No, GMO or not, Africa has complex problems that are not easily solved. But in the particular case I cited, unreasonable pessimism created more harm than good.

    As for “safer” that’s exactly my point. GMO crops have almost no history of causing problems to human health in practice, and many of them are drought or disease resistant, thus being “safer” in that they lessen the risk of catastrophic food shortages.

    Eliudrn,

    If the Law of Attraction were simply commonsense principles of confidence, persistence and attitude, I would have no problem with it. The issue I take is that they both support an ontology that’s demonstrably false (that is the theory is bogus) and more often it results in applications which are far from ideal (hoping instead of doing). I’m not saying that practitioners can’t get great results, simply that just because an idea has success stories doesn’t mean I can’t take serious objection to it’s truthfulness and utility.

    As for my own persistence, it’s perfectly rational. A low probability of success is mediated by experiments give you new knowledge, as well as a lop-sided outcome distribution which encourages action. I’m not saying that the emotion of persistence always has or should have a rational basis, but rather that big things do not require irrationality to pursue them. Optimism, even crazy optimism is sometimes the most rational choice, the point of this article.

    Jonathan,

    Optimism isn’t complacency. Caution is important. So is having a strategy and working hard. But fear-mongering and irrational pessimism aren’t the answer. In many ways optimism creates a moral obligation to fix problems in society because we know that problems can be solved and will be solved.

  11. Jonathan says:

    Scott, thanks for the reply, but my argument isn’t that optimism begets complacency. Thats not a fair reading of my post. My argument is that optimism is an emotional strategy. The danger of an emotional strategy (optimism) being used to analyze data (the trend toward the world being a better place) is that it blinds society from seeing what needs to be done now to mitigate worst-case scenarios which will eventually happen. It’s not the measurements you sight that are flawed, it’s the measuring stick. – Jonathan

  12. Scott Young says:

    Jonathan,

    Biases in both directions put a misallocation of resources. If you’re overly pessimistic, you’ll be too loss-averse, and avoid making the kinds of positive improvement to society which could have an impact. If you’re overly optimistic, you’ll be too blind to risk, and ignore caution. My argument is that people tend to ignore the downside of being too pessimistic.

    -Scott

  13. Sara says:

    Thanks for your reply, and I haven’t read that book so can’t comment on how authoritative it is regarding regarding African agricultural policies. However, in economics, geo-politics, history and agriculture studies, it is becoming a fairly consensus view point both that Africa has an abundance of land that is arable but is unused or in use for non-food products, and that historically famines have less to do with crop failure and more to do with a variety of government and economic policies.

    If these fields are to be believed, one has to question how GMO crops are supposed to solve a problem that isn’t being caused directly by crop failure but rather being caused by a lack of crops being sown.

    Of course, GMO crops would be one way around this as they do have a tendency to spread like wildfire being, as you say, highly resistant.

    But a side factor of this (inherent in all GMO crops, and we can trace this back as far as the Green Revolution in the 70s, if not even earlier – genetic modification being centuries old, it is just the methods and potential outcomes that have increased in recent years), is that GMO crops inevitably affect biodiversity. We never know the full effect on biodiversity that a GMO crop will have until that effect has happened, by which stage there is generally no way of reversing.

    So, no, I wouldn’t argue that GMO crops are “safer” by virtue of their being more resistant – their resistance means they will have an unforeseeable (could be bad, could even be good, we just don’t know) effect on biodiversity, which in turn could have an effect on human consumption (here it isn’t just a case of enough food but also a variety of foodstuffs, and here we are talking about a pretty massive continent that would be affected by the introduction of GMO crops, rather than a small island nation) and GMO crops are also completely unneeded in Africa or in pretty much any other country where famine happens.

    What would be “safer” in this scenario would be a rethinking of government policy, corporate policy (all the companies investing in Africa as places to grow biofuels), and international trade.

    In short, I’d be skeptical of the integrity of that study.

  14. Scott Young says:

    Sara,

    Droughts and diseases cause problems. Whether they are made far worse by governmental policies is a separate issue.

    Even in developed nations, a bad drought or infestation of a particular pest/disease can reduce crop yields and cause volatility in food prices, which if the inhabitants of a country are on subsistence agriculture, could be life-threatening.

    I’m not an expert on Africa or agriculture, so I can’t really argue the specifics of the case, however denying crops which could avoid the devastation to crop yields under the vague threat of biodiversity loss appears to be misguided, from my naive viewpoint.

    I’ll leave the argument for now to people who know the specific costs and benefits better.

    -Scott

  15. Eliud says:

    Thanks for your reply, Scott!
    I certainly agree and understand the value of your article in that optimism is many times the most rational choice. However, I must insist that although you are certainly entitled to your opinion, the large audience that you command deserve a better informed commentary than “phony” and “completely divorced from reality in certain subject matters. It is in fact in my own reality and experience that I’ve come to an understanding–that it is certainly not hope, but vision in conjunction with, faith, persistence and action that lead to the most optimistic results.

    I am certainly not a labeled “practitioner” of the law of attraction, or cult member, or religious of the sort. But, it has been through reading the countless books and through personal accomplishments, and living the life that I’ve lead in my 36 years in which a reoccurring theme seems to present itself: That is that the world will present itself how we choose to see it.

    I am not an expert on the law of attraction. I do understand however that the universe is a strange place with strange rules such as those of quantum physics. But one thing I have no doubt of is what Nelson Mandela, along with many great thinkers believe: “I am the master of my fate.” Will you let cynicism prevail?

    One last thing. There is a short book that I recommend and would value your opinion: Travis S. Taylor’s “The Science Behind the Secret”.
    Thanks again Scott and I look forward to your next article.

  16. Meredith says:

    Win.

    Feels like you’re saying stuff that’s been common-sense-why-do-other-people-forget-this twirling around my head that needs to be said and out with – in good writing fashion.

    +Props writing style && content.

  17. Hey Scott.

    I like your writing and perspective as usual man. You bring the real juice. I agree with that part that says “The same cynics don’t take back their original skepticism, they just pretend they knew it would have worked all along.”

    Great stuff I’mma come back here again like I used to.

  18. “Optimism isn’t complacency. Caution is important. So is having a strategy and working hard. But fear-mongering and irrational pessimism aren’t the answer. In many ways optimism creates a moral obligation to fix problems in society because we know that problems can be solved and will be solved.”

    By nature we are conservative. We got this way because of evolution. Thousands of years ago being ‘overly optimistic’ could get you killed (eaten by a bear, lion, tiger, whatever). So we imagine things, we try to predict how scenarios will play out. We worry about things even if they only have a 20% chance of happening.

    Think about going on a roller coaster. What’s the chance that you’ll ‘fall out’ of the roller coaster as it swoops around? 0.000001%? What about rollerblading along the side of the road? What’s the chance that you’ll slip and fall into the road, etc? 0.1%? .01%?

    At the end of the day, we only have ONE life, so it’s obvious why we evolved to be so conservative. People who are ‘brave’, ‘optimistic’ aren’t lunatics; they’re people who have experience succeeding.

    Start small and build experience with success and your optimism will grow.

    Also recommended (via Tony Robbins): http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Day-Mental-Diet-Change/dp/0875167381

    Can you go 7 days without a negative thought? This is how you build a track record of positivity.

    You can always be eaten by a Lion; the point is to see all the possibilities around you, not just the negative ones.

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  20. Neha says:

    You made sense till, ‘phony systems like the Law of Attraction’. There you lost me.

  21. […] Cynicism is Easy, Optimism Takes Guts Scott Young This entry was posted in Optimism, Psychology, Resilience and tagged Optimism by Anthony Critchley. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  22. AndrewLee says:

    Great post and great writing.

  23. […] flight of optimism and the disconnect between expectations and actuality gives potential cynics a sentiment of helplessness. This leads to the characteristic personality trait of the cynic: the misguided awareness that […]

  24. Mimi says:

    Spot on Scott! Anyone can destroy things, ideas, people, so what’s admirable about those actions?

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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