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Why I’d rather be an optimist than a pessimist

by Michael Nielsen on July 30, 2008

A pessimist can only achieve great things by accident, whereas an optimist can hope to do them by design.

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10 Comments
  1. Ah, so true Michael. It is strange when I feel like I’m one of the few optimistic people around. Perhaps I am too optimistic, but I believe it leads to having a happier life. It’s far too easy to be negative about everything, but being happy about life and about today, that is something special that not many people have.

  2. Upper bounds FTW!

  3. I used to me much more pessimistic, but I still find it useful sometimes to expect the worse: for example, I *expect* that there is a good chance that my luggage will get lost every time I take a plane, and prepare for it. I also expect (snail) mail to not arrive at all or not on time, so I ask people to confirm when they get something. It’s just more practical sometimes. It’s not *always* practical, because I also worry that people show up to parties or events, and there’s nothing to really *do* about that except ask for an RSVP and wait. You can’t take preventive measures or do any damage control there, so you might as well expect people *do* show up – but I don’t.
    Maybe it’s no so much pessimism as “worrying way too much about things I have no control over”.

  4. “I also worry that people show up to parties or events”

    Clearly there is a “don’t” missing here. I may be a pessimist, but I’m not a pessimistic misanthropist.

  5. James – yeah, it’s hard to believe optimists don’t lead _much, much_ better lives. Pessimism and its close cousins cynicism and apathy seem like the wrong way to go about life.

    Dave – I catch the exuberance, but not your drift, if you get my drift 🙂

    Eva – Not sure those things exactly count as pessimism; they sound more like being prepared. It seems to me that one should aim for the stars, on the grounds that “at least you won’t shoot your foot off”. Doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to aim prudently away from your foot 🙂

    Incidentally, I wish I could “like” your last sentence (“I may be a pessimist, but I’m not a pessimistic misanthropist”) like on FriendFeed.

  6. Jon permalink

    I’m not an optimist, but a realist (which is an optimistic way of saying I’m a pessimist). But I believe that my disposition makes me a better engineer: I anticipate problems before they occur, because I expect them. I’ll think about plan B even if plan A is going fairly well. I think this goes beyond simple preparation because it’s so automatic.

    I can’t imagine that most greatness isn’t achieved with a mix of optimism and realism. Perhaps my perspective blinds me a bit, but the archetype of a great inventor or scientist isn’t exactly a cheerful can-do type. I think it’s more of a shrewd, get-to-the-point mentality combined with endless stamina.

    For an example of the balance, consider building a bridge. A (cartoonish) naive optimist wouldn’t worry about designing it to withstand a once-in-50 year storm — putting safety at risk. An over-the-top pessimist might not agree to a design unless it can withstand a once-in-100,000 year storm – surely sending the cost so high it would no longer be worthwhile to build.

    Perhaps optimism/pessimism is nothing more than the way people’s mental statistical calculators are biased.

  7. Haha, Eva, that’s a very typically German way of thinking: always expect the worst. Most importantly, tell everybody what is likely going to happen. Tell them repeatedly, whether they want to hear it or not. I was cured from that very rapidly when I figured that it comes off extremely negatively and pessimistic in the USA. I never considered myself pessimistic because of this expecting-the-worst thinking, it is more the try not to be disappointed if things don’t work out, much like Michael said above.

    A friend of mine who was a postdoc here at PI (but has left meanwhile) once said jokingly that the Germans here get together once a week for complaint-coffee, where we’d do nothing but tell each other what a bad place the world is. Clichees are always funny, but there’s some truth in that – in my experience Germans indeed complain often and about everything. The problem is just that (the average) American don’t seem to realize (the average) German doesn’t mean that seriously (in fact, “serious” is one of the most common adjectives that Americans seem to assign to Germans for reasons I can’t quite figure out).

    Either way, I guess I’m hopelessly optimistic. I always believe people only mean well and try to do the best they can, and if the outcome is suboptimal that’s a system failure. That is probably also the reason why I’m good with system critique 😉

  8. cody permalink

    I’ve been thinking recently that there is an inherent optimism to the scientific process, and a sort of pessimism inherent in the supernatural and religious attempts to explain the world. Science takes the optimistic position that today’s questions will be answered tomorrow, (and result in new and exciting questions to investigate), while non-scientific explanations of phenomena seem to invoke insurmountable barriers.

    I’ve always understood myself to be very optimistic, like James, I am probably too optimistic. But like Bee pointed out, I do seem to complain a lot, I am often taken too seriously, and I do typically expect the worst. I’ve learned it is difficult for a movie to disappoint me if I think nothing or poorly about it, whereas often my hopes cannot be lived up to.

  9. That even involves: a pessimist is not expected to achieve, whereas the optimist is.
    Probalably, the reason why the most would rather be pessimists than optimists as well ;).. isn’t it?

  10. Valentina – absolutely! That’s one reason I dislike cynics; by affecting cynicism, they abdicate responsibility for doing anything to improve the world.

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