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April 21st, 2021
A healthy perspective is one composed of both optimism and pessimism. But this is putting it crudely. Each word carries too much of an emotional connotation about someone’s disposition toward life. It’s often stated that pessimists are more in touch with reality, and yet, it’s the optimists that actually get new things done. One would imagine that the pessimist, with their superior model of reality would be more adept at making the possible real, but clearly this isn’t the case, and this is at the core of the problem with these two words being too laden with emotional resonance. Imagine for a moment what it means to be an optimist or a pessimist without the emotional valence that’s associated with it, what would this look like?
Another way to look at these perspectives is to think about worst case scenarios and best case scenarios. The optimist aims for the second one, the best case scenario, and of course risks great disappointment when it doesn’t happen. Although, appropriately enough, a true optimist isn’t likely to be all that fazed by such set backs, which is at the core of optimism’s utility. The pessimist, on the other hand looks for the worst case scenario, and this is tremendously useful, because if the worst case scenario can be accurately modelled, then measures can be taken to ensure that it doesn’t happen. A combination of these two specific features is the sweet spot to develop: imagining, understanding and protecting against the worst case scenario in order to free up opportunity to safely aim for the stars.
The problem with the emotional association with the words ‘pessimism’ and ‘optimism’ is that in order to combine the best features of both perspectives, one has to let go of any emotional intensity. Only from a relatively neutral emotional standpoint can a person see both the worst case scenario and a much better potential future. Emotional intensity on either side of this dichotomy blinds us from the benefits of the other. It’s not so much how we look at the world, but how we feel while we’re looking. Emotion infuses and tints all aspects of reality, making even the most beautiful sunny day repugnant to the person unwilling to enjoy it, or the a dreary and wet camping trip a small slice of heaven to the person who is looking for details in experience to enjoy. While one of these is certainly far more preferable for normal, everyday living, both become a hinder when we try to assess something new about the future, and what we might be able to do with it. The key is to keep a foot firmly planted on the ground of reality while stepping up into the unknown, imagining a step that we might be able to build.