Your life and my life are both going to continue to increase in awesomeness over time. We are likely to have exceptional fortune and health throughout our days, we’ll help to change some lives for the better, our kids are going to turn out loving and great, and we will die with a broad smile across our rugged and weather-worn faces somewhere around the age of a hundred and twenty two. Oh sure, there will be the odd problem and catastrophe along the way, but they will just serve as recharging jolts to keep us from getting complacent. More problems to solve, more learning to do, and deeper happiness to attain. On top of that, the human race is bound for an ever-better fate, ironing out most of its current problems and most of the problems that follow in the future, ending up at a tantalizing Star Trek Utopia.
Those are pretty controversial statements to make these days, yet strangely enough the general theme tends to become true, for the few people who are crazy enough to believe it.
And most of us don’t believe it. In fact, many of us end up going completely the opposite way. One of the problems with being a clever and analytical person like yourself, is that you’ve become very good at seeing what might go wrong. You can see the risks inherent in any enterprise, and if you’ve got enough Cliff Claven in you, you might even be fond of expounding about those risks to anyone around who will listen.
There are even people make whole careers of this. Fear-mongering in general tends to make you sound smart, and fearful people get a quirky sort of reassurance by snuggling up to a fearful leader, and confidently predicting the worst possible outcome. Dmitri Orlov gets lots of attention by continuously foretelling the complete collapse of the United States. A favorite technique of Collapse theorists is to sit at the news screen, interpreting each development of still further evidence of their theory. “Oh.. now the politicians are arguing. Sure sign of collapse. National debt is growing.. collapse. Oil consumption rising faster than supply.. just as I predicted, ’twas foretold, ’twas foretold.
The same methods can be applied by a Personal Collapse Theorist. “Oh man, this job is stressing me out. My department is going down the shitter, and we’ll be the first ones on the chopping block when the next round of layoffs comes. And it will be coming SOON! … And the thing is, in THIS ECONOMY, I need to hold onto my job because there are no other ones out there. Not in my field, anyway. All this is really taking a toll on my health. I’ve got bad knees and back, and they really flare up when I am stressed. So they are getting worse every day, which makes me even more stressed, which makes me even worse at my job, which makes me even more likely to get laid off, which ….”
Whew, it hurt my fingers even to type that paragraph above, even though it was all completely made up. But it hurts because it’s true – some people actually say things like that on a regular basis. And every time I hear it, I feel like grasping the person’s head between my hands and shaking it while I say, “Wake up, Dude! You’re doing more than just discussing your situation right now.. You’re creating your own reality!”
Let’s contrast the life of the Personal Collapse person to the fate of a really lucky person. You probably know at least one person that is just so lucky that they annoy you. The person has a better job than you, always seems to get promotions, has cooler friends, and maybe even a more attractive spouse and a greener lawn. Some even accuse plain old Mr. Money Mustache of being annoying for the same reason, “Oh, enough from you Mustache. You retired early and then things seem to keep going well for you. You’re making it all up, or if you’re not, it’s just luck and it can’t be applied to me”.
Fair enough. Let’s stop the fakeypants Fresh-From-the-Tanning-Salon-Self-Help-Guru spiel right now. We’re all scientists here, so we can acknowledge that luck, or the partially random distribution of life situations, does indeed play a part in how a person’s life turns out. There’s the genetic lottery, where each person gets different abilities directly from their parents, then there is upbringing, family, location, and pure random events supplied by the outside world. It’s bound to create a very diverse set of results, right?
But if you’ve ever been to a bar and watched a less-attractive friend have far greater success in attracting mates, or worked in an office where you notice that many of the people in highly paid senior positions are less competent and intelligent than yourself, you know there is something fishy about the theory that luck and birthright alone deliver our fate.
And that’s where we get to secret weapon of Optimism that I’ve brought to you today.
I’m hefting a stainless steel case onto the table and undoing the latches for you now. It’s lined with black velvet and as I open it up, both of our faces light up with golden light, just like when they opened Marsalis Wallace’s Briefcase in Pulp fiction. Inside is a very smooth, very polished tool that looks like it was crafted by an advanced alien race. It is made of gold and silver materials, with a sculpted handle and cobalt blue trigger. It’s your new Optimism Gun.
But what good is fictional asset like an Optimism Gun when we’re trying to accomplish things here in the real world? The answer is a Hell of a lot of good, because in this world full of humans, almost all of our “reality” is created in our own heads.
Is money real? No, it’s just a shared understanding among all of us that we agree to store value in nontangible forms. What about Gold, that’s more real than money, right? Nope – offer a pile of gold coins and a nice chunk of meat to a dog, and see which one he chooses. Fame, fortune, the respect of others, or a job as President of the United States? Just chemical patterns stored in the minds of a bunch of other humans. Even physical problems, like immediately cutting human carbon emissions by 75% to reduce climate change or eliminating poverty in all poor countries, are things that could be solved within months, just by altering patterns in a bunch of human minds. And as it turns out, the human mind is exactly the target of the Optimism Gun.
But does it really work? I found my own Gun about 21 years ago and I have certainly found it effective whenever I had the courage to apply it. It has helped me get an offer for every job I have ever applied to, earn and save more money than the pessimists assumed possible, have a very nice family life, and be generally happy every day, as I’m sure you’ve heard more than enough. I also secretly use the OG in this blog (in fact, I’m writing this post with the bluetooth keyboard that was supplied with the device). And I’d argue that it is working here too, evidenced by the ridiculous spread of Mustachianism to date (now they’re even thinking of making a big TV show out of it!). Because which is more likely: a software engineer who didn’t even take an English class in university just happens to be the most amazing writer in the world with the most useful financial ideas as well? Or that the blog just makes people feel good about their lives because it is much more optimistic than other writing on the topic, and this motivates them to try some new things?
There are several psychological principles at work that make all this work on a practical level:
- Humans are automatically drawn to Leaders: Most people just want to hang back with the crowd and shy away from pressure of standing out. As soon as somebody stands on the box and picks up the conch, people start listening. If you dare to express optimism about anything, you’re stepping onto a little soapbox, and it gets attention.
- People want it to be true: If you’ve become a small-time leader and you deliver the Good Word, people will naturally want to keep listening, because you help them feel good about things too.
- Optimism tricks you into trying more things: If you believe success is almost guaranteed, you’re going to try some pretty fun ventures. In reality, sure, you fail at some things, but what do they always tell us is the best teacher? That’s right, it’s failure. So you end up racking up much more hard-earned experience and knowledge than the non-optimist. Then what do you do with all that extra knowledge? You succeed. Meanwhile, everyone else is still hesitating to try the first thing.
- You are forced not to focus on things you can’t control: One of the most useful lessons of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is that you never worry about stuff you cannot control. You just work on the things you can. As an example, I never watch the political debates or follow the polls for next month’s presidential election. That doesn’t help me at all! Instead, I just read the descriptions of the policies each candidate plans to put into place, evaluate those against my best guess at their long-term effects on the success of the world in general (not just based on my own situation), then send in my mail-in ballot long before the election day. Then I can be optimistic because I’ve had my full say by voting, and I have hundreds of hours freed up to accomplish other things while the pessimists are still watching TV and worrying about the election!
- Acknowledge and Bow Down to the Placebo Effect: When it comes to health and well-being, the mind controls the body way more than rational people like to admit*. This isn’t just new-age medicine – the very thought of taking medicine that makes people better, has a statistically significant effect on the outcome of medical tests. It is so real, that scientists have to adjust for it by giving people fake pills, which make them better, in order to see if the real pills do even more than the fake ones.
I enjoy hacking this fact to control my own health. I have a permanent belief that I am unusually healthy, and that this condition will persist forever. Even when I get sick, I look at it as a very temporary anomaly, always assuming I’ll be back to full health by the next day. It usually proves to be true. Not only am I overdosing on the placebo effect, but these assumptions lead me to do the deliberate things one would do if one were preparing for a healthy 122-year lifespan as well. And on top of all this, the optimism is limiting the release of the human stress hormone Cortisol, which tends to destroy health. The less you worry about health, the healthier you become.
- Optimism is rare, and deadly when combined with competence: If you’re a smart guy or gal at your workplace, the other smart people are expecting you to be pessimistic, just like them. You can sit at the lunch table, discussing the chronic failures of management or the critically flawed design of the product you’re all working on. But once you’ve proven your pessimism/realism chops and are respected by the gang, then you gradually start playing some tricks. You can slip in ideas like “Well, this project might actually turn out OK.. all we have to do is rewrite the Flange module from scratch and then get Schmidt to let us use it in Release 2.0. I’m pretty sure I can do that.”. Your coworkers will be fooled into thinking that they really can do those things, which they wouldn’t have otherwise tried. As noted in point #3, these things occasionally work, and as you hone your skills at tricking people into succeeding, you find yourself increasingly being sought after for CEO positions.
So there you have it, from the perspective of both the motivational speaker, and the engineer. This stuff really works on other people and on ourselves, and it’s the source of most of the “luck” we experience in our lifetimes.
So the only remaining barrier is: are you daring enough to begin this journey by turning the Optimism Gun on Yourself?
*Further Reading: The Economist reports on a recent study that found some of the mechanisms by which positive emotions influence health.