Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Naively Cynical, Naively Optimistic

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Hebrews 11:1
I was on the phone yesterday with a dear friend who's been struggling of late with his boss and his job. Over the years his boss has made promise after promise that he's not fulfilled: raises, bonuses, greater span of control, the resources to implement new ideas, and so on. My friend had finally "had enough" and was beginning the process of looking for a new job. To his credit (from my perspective), he didn't begin the process in secret, waiting to spring his decision on his boss after finding a new position, but instead, immediately told his boss his plans.

His boss responded big time, wanting to rectify the situation with compensation and increased opportunity. He apologized for not having been able to do many of the things that he'd hoped to have done and promised to do better going forward.

My friend and I discussed his boss' proposal. As we talked, it occurred to me that my friend, who is one of the sweetest people you'll ever meet, had become cynical. Even as we considered what his boss had promised and worked to come up with specific and measurable goals, it was clear to me that my friend had no confidence whatsoever that his boss would ever deliver.

What's the Opposite of Cynical?
Last night after dinner, I asked my buddy Jonathan, "What's the opposite of cynical?"

He responded, "I don't know. Gullible?"

So, this morning I did a little googling to see what others had to say. Indeed, words like gullible and naive show up on the list, but so do words like trusting, hopeful and optimistic.

The more I googled, the more I saw that cynicism is fairly pervasive in our culture. From what I can make of it, cynicism is yet another way we've come to take care of ourselves; if we expect the worst (in people and in situations), then we won't be hurt when it happens. It would seem that people frequently use cynicism as a cheap substitute for wisdom or depth, and that cynics would consider the opposite of cynicism to be stupid.

Cynicism is Naive
As I considered all this, it occurred to me that being cynical is actually naive. It's not insightful or deep; it's just a response to what some would consider to be naively optimistic and hopeful, i.e., naively pessimistic and doubtful.

Since we don't actually know about 99.9999999% of what is going to happen (give or take), pretty much any view we take on the future is likely to be wrong. So why not be positive, trusting and optimistic. In fact, I believe that our outlooks and perspectives effect outcomes even better than they predict them.

What Gorilla?
There's a lot to be said about how our thoughts shape our reality. Sports trainers talk consistently about the importance of envisioning mentally what you're attempting to achieve physically: what the mind believes, the body achieves.

Psychological studies have been conducted on the effects of anticipation on perception.
A classic study employs a videotape of people playing basketball. Subjects were asked to view the tape and to count the number of passes made by one of the teams. In the middle of the video, a woman dressed in a gorilla suit walks slowly across the scene, passing among the players and stopping to face the camera while thumping her chest.

When asked about the gorilla, about half the subjects responded, "What gorilla?"

People, Parking Spaces and Weather
I believe that the effect of belief and anticipation goes well beyond our physical capabilities and perceptions.

If you've ever observed someone deep in thought or focused on a task, his face me seem to lose all affect: downward turn to the corners of his mouth, blank stare, and so. Alternatively, she might have a furrowed brow or wrinkled nose as she focuses intently on her task.

As you approach someone focused or deep in thought, it's easy to interpret these expressions as unhappiness, consternation or even anger. This causes you to anticipate and prepare for a certain type of interaction; you may approach the person guardedly, or without energy or enthusiasm. We tend to match our approach to what we anticipate.

Seeing this, over the past couple of years, I've adopted a policy of always approaching people in the manner that represents how I'm feeling, not how I anticipate them feeling or responding. I'm consistently pleased by the effect; even the scariest, most angry looking person will respond with a smile when you approach them energetically, earnestly and happily.

Iris has taken the effect of belief and anticipation well beyond the scope of influencing others. In particular, she routinely 'orders' parking spaces in Harvard Square and in the North End (places where the likelihood of finding a space approaches absolute zero). She'll point to where we need to turn, where the parking space will be, and voila.

Additionally, she's in charge of the weather. I gotta tell you, I'm amazed at how often she's decided that it's time for sun, and, despite all the prognostications of the most sophisticated meteorologists, sun we get.

Which Are You?
In the end, you can be naively optimistic or you can be naively pessimistic. It's all just a choice. The effect on who you are, how you perceive your world, and what you can accomplish is well documented. I believe strongly that the effect goes beyond our personal boundaries and influences others. I'm starting to believe that it goes well beyond that.

Are you naively optimistic or naively pessimistic? What are you anticipating today? How will you approach the person behind the coffee counter? ...your boss? ...your coworkers? What will you effect?

Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.

Norman Vincent Peale

Happy Tuesday!


  1. As long as we're going to be capricious and arbitrary about our prognostications--into which category I usually put both optimism and pessimism--it makes sense to me to do the one that feels good. The choice isn't typically (maybe ever?) between rose-colored glasses and "reality." More often it's between rose-colored glasses and shit-colored glasses. Great post!

  2. Teflon: you wrote "Since we don't actually know about 99.9999999% of what is going to happen (give or take), pretty much any view we take on the future is likely to be wrong. So why not be positive, trusting and optimistic."

    I suppose there should be a question mark at the end of the 2nd sentence, and as good Option practitioners or Belief Makers, we could refuse to view it as a rhetorical question and actually try to answer it, especially because there are plenty of people who consistently *do not* choose to be positive, trusting and optimistic. One answer is already in your post (if we expect the worst ..., then we won't be hurt when it happens). Another possible reason is that the pessimist values avoidance of hurt/loss, and therefore focuses on the potentially negative outcomes, while an optimist values maximizing gains/benefits and so focuses on the potentially positive outcomes of a future event.

    Kristoof said "it makes sense to me to do the one that feels good". I've always wondered why dyed-in-the-wool pessimists are that way. Why would they want to do something consistently if it didn't feel good? My guess is that they must be getting some good feelings from avoiding hurt/loss even if it involves doing unhappiness first. Maybe the optimist is just choosing to not feel hurt when things go badly in the end, just as a pessimist chooses to not feel hurt about letting opportunities go by.

    The middle path would be to not do hurt at all, and to just decide what we want most (minimize loss or maximize gain) at each moment, and then act on that basis.

  3. Sree: Thank you! Please consider all questions (rhetorical and otherwise) open to answer.

    I like how you've modeled the pessimism/optimism question in terms of risk/reward. Rather than financial returns, we're looking at happiness returns. I agree, in end, both the pessimist and the optimist seek happiness: one through avoidance of unhappiness (hurt/loss) and the other through the attainment of something they want.

    I would guess that the pessimist also derives some satisfaction or happiness in having prepared for the negative outcome. However, I would suggest that the, while the motivations might be similar (to be happy), that the optimist is much better at it. In my experience, the quality of happiness experienced by the optimist is more stronger, richer, more resilient, and more pervasive than that of the pessimist.

    I would wager that deep down, the pessimist would prefer the happiness, energy and enthusiasm experienced by the optimist if only they believed that it wouldn't hurt them in the end.

    What do you think?

  4. Oh, I totally agree. The pessimist's experience of life has got to be vastly different from the optimist's.

  5. I am cynicaly optimistic and naively pesimistic - and I absolutely love the fact that I was reading part of this blog while watching "Life is beautifull" by Begnini - it might be the most beautifull movie about how fantastic it is to be "gullible" - which was a new word to be.


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