Agile · Other topics I care about · Simplicity

Is it stupid to be an optimist?

I mentioned when I retooled this blog for the new year that in addition to my regular five post per week on what I’m reading, questions I have, leadership, pop culture, and Agile I would also be doing some re-blogging or link-posting to cool things I found and occasional other random posts on stuff that occurred to me.  I reblogged a link to an article from Steve Johnson (@sjohnson717) whose insights on product management and Agile I regularly appreciate – check it out if this stuff interests you.  Here I want to share brief thoughts on a question regularly running through my mind (though I suppose I could have saved this for Tuesday’s post on questions).

I go through life as an optimist in general – sure I get down or discouraged sometimes and fall into brief bouts of despair but I snap out of these fairly quickly.  It’s not that I have had a super easy life or have always seen things go well for me; I’ve had my share of failures and defeats and have been through a number of crushing experiences both in my childhood and as an adult.  I’ve been through hard times personally and professionally, as a husband and father, and in my friendships.  But I have what some psychologists call resilience and I bounce back from tough times.  More than that, I go through even hard things expecting that either things will work out or – if they don’t – I’ll figure some way to get through whatever happens.  Some of this is self-confidence and the assurance that just as I have survived previous hardships so this new struggle won’t overwhelm me.  Some of it is a dark twisted humor that finds something to laugh about even in the roughest times (like the Danny Glover character says in the movie Grand Canyon, “if this doesn’t kill you then you’re gonna be around to see it come down another way.”)

I heard a definition of optimism and pessimism many years ago that has stayed with me.  If you put a pessimistic kid in a room full of new toys he will sit on the floor looking sad; ask him why and he’ll say, “I know you’re going to take these away from me later or they’re going to break.”  Put an optimistic kid in a room full of horse manure and she’ll get a huge grin on her face and start digging through it; ask her why and she’ll say, “With all this manure there must be a pony here somewhere!”  I identify more with the optimist.

And sometimes that can be painful.  I know a lot of pessimists – or as they call themselves “realists” – who are annoyed by my confidence that things will work out somehow.  They can’t share my peaceful lack of misery and get frustrated when I won’t join them in being unhappy.  And the truth is that sometimes things don’t work out well and there are lots of times when I have to settle for just making it through.  Still I prefer facing life with the believe that even if it knocks me down I will just get up again rather than wincing at every anticipated blow when sometimes those blows don’t actually come.  I’d rather be overly optimistic and go through more pain than I expected instead of being overly pessimistic and missing out on some joy I could have experienced.  Still I know that in truth it’s not simple.

My question: Is this stupid?  Given that, as the man in black says in Princess Bride, “Life is pain,” and as M Scott Peck says in The Road Less Traveled, “Life is difficult,” am I just naive and foolish to be an optimist? And if that’s true, is it really so bad?

How about you? Are you an optimist or a pessimist?


2 thoughts on “Is it stupid to be an optimist?

  1. Not bad at all, Stephen – I think it’s a great way to go through life. OR, if it is bad, then I suffer from the same peaceful lack of misery (even if I do find it sometimes). Someone told me that I was very “Buddhist” once – since I take things as they come. I know you’re not Buddhist, but that idea that things will just work out fits the Buddhist mindset. Peck says in the Road Less Traveled that once you accept that life is hard, it is suddenly less hard (he says it more gracefully).

    Anyway – it’s not stupid to be an optimist. I’m tempted to say it’s stupid to be a pessimist (realist), but I know that’s not true either. The world needs both perspectives to stay in balance.

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