Optimism Is Underrated

At 46 years old, Anwar Ibrahim was the deputy prime minister of Malaysia.

His mentor, prime minister Dr. Mahathir was already in his late 60s. The path to be Malaysia’s leader seemed clear.

Yet in the following decades, he went to prison twice, repeatedly failed to win the premiership despite claiming majority support, and watched a succession of other men become prime ministers (including a return of his mentor-turned-nemesis Dr. Mahathir).

Anwar was finally elected Malaysia’s 10th prime minister on 24th November 2022. He was 75 years old. The path from #2 to #1 had taken 29 years.

– – –

As the news broke about Mr. Anwar’s triumph, I watched a video of his aides breaking down in tears. It was hard not to get emotional. Some of them had been with him for decades. I wonder if they’d ever lost hope.

Today’s article isn’t about politics though.

It’s about optimism. Faith, hope — and all the touchy-feely that comes with it.

I’m convinced that optimism is underrated. Let me try to explain.

Optimism Is Kinda Lame, Pessimism Is Cool

When I was an awkward intern, I once asked one of the popular sales guys: “How to build rapport with people?”

He replied: “Find something to complain about together.”

What is it about negativity that’s attractive? It’s certainly not something we’re born with.

Children are natural optimists — full of hope — but somewhere along the path of growing up we think it’s cooler to be negative. We think it’s cool to be cynical.

Of course, some of it is necessary self-preservation. You don’t function well in adulthood with the naïveté of a child. Have we taken the anti-optimistic thing too far though? Probably.

Evidence: There’s at least one study that shows millennials to be the most cynical generation ever.

Morgan Housel writes:

“Pessimism is intellectually seductive in a way optimism only wishes it could be.

Tell someone that everything will be great and they’re likely to either shrug you off or offer a skeptical eye. Tell someone they’re in danger and you have their undivided attention.”

You take the pessimistic view because it’s easier to blend in with people, and it feels smart.

But what if all that pessimism hurts more than it helps?

Life Sucks Without Optimism

Without optimism, our world would collapse.

Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine explains in his brilliant essay “The Case for Optimism” :

“Civilization requires trust.

If you expect that you can trust a stranger, that is optimism. If you expect to be cheated or hurt, that is pessimism.

Societies that bring the most good to the most people, require that people be trusted more than they are distrusted; that they expect more good than harm; they require that people in general have more hope than fear.”

The tricky thing is, it’s a collective effort. And there’ll always be a bunch of assholes who break the collective trust.

Let’s say in a society, there’s a million good citizens and 300 thieves.

Things work if all one million people go: “Oh occasionally thieves will try breaking in, so let’s remember to lock our doors. But most people are good.”

Things fail if everyone goes: “If you can’t beat them, join them. Most people are bad. Let’s steal too.”

That’s the extreme, which probably never happens. But at some point — and I don’t know whether that number is 500 or 1,000 criminals per million — people start losing faith. And that loss of faith causes even more crime — a vicious cycle.

Humanity Trends Towards Good

Thankfully, we know that most people want to live in peace. Most people want justice. Most people want progress.

And despite what shows up in the news, there’s tons of evidence that the world is actually getting better. We started with an example about crime, so here’s some world statistics about homicides (murders):

  • In 1990, the average number of homicides per 100,000 people was 7.08. Meaning, 7 out of every 100,000 people were murdered that year.
    (If that sounds high to you, it’s worldwide statistics — meaning this includes murders from the most violent places on earth. Many places are much safer, for example in Singapore it was only 1.99)
  • In 2019, the global number dropped to 5.22. In Singapore, it dropped to 0.40 — lowest in the world

Of course, even one murder is one too many. Things are improving, but we can’t deny terrible things still happen.

In his essay “The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better,” Dr. Max Roser writes about how these seemingly contradictory statements can be true. Quoting my favorite parts:

“The news often focuses on how awful the world is.

I think it’s irresponsible to only report on how awful our situation is.

If we want more people to dedicate their energy and money to making the world a better place, then we should make it much more widely known that it is possible to make the world a better place.”

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

The Hard Thing About Being an Optimist

On one hand, we have many things to be optimistic about at a macro level — whether it’s youth mortality, homicides or poverty. At a personal level, there’s evidence that optimists live longer and make more money.

On the other hand, pessimism does feel like a safer place to cautiously peer at life from. Why the disconnect?

I asked ChatGPT why optimism is underrated and it gave me some sage advice:

“I think optimism is not necessarily underrated, but rather it is often misunderstood. Optimism is often confused with naïveté or denial.

Optimism is not just about blindly believing that everything will always work out for the best, but rather it is about believing that even in the face of adversity, it is possible to find ways to overcome challenges and achieve success.”

It’s hard to be an optimist because optimism requires us to look into the future and have faith. Not just in yourself but in others. It’s mental work. It’s an emotional risk.

Much easier to just focus on immediate problems you can see and feel today.

Balancing the Benefits of Optimism With Being Realistic

Have you ever had a friend who was dreaming big all the time, but seemed to have no idea how to get there?

I’m stereotyping here, but some personality traits seem to have polar opposites. Like how big visionaries often suck at details.

Similarly, optimism is hard because we try to balance it with being realistic. Trying to practice both faith and critical thinking feels like using opposing sides of the brain. A paradox.

Like most things in life, a healthy balance gives us the best chance of success.

Author Maria Popova puts things into perspective:

“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”

Have patience for the long term. Work hard in the short.

Billionaire Ray Dalio once said the key is to achieving dreams is to be a hyperrealist. I think he got the tricky balance right:

“The pursuit of dreams is what gives life its flavor. My point is that people who create great things aren’t idle dreamers: They are totally grounded in reality.

Being hyperrealistic will help you choose your dreams wisely and then achieve them.”

– – –

In 2018, shortly after he was released from prison for the second time, Anwar Ibrahim — once described as an “irrepressible optimist” — was asked in an interview with BBC:

“You’re convinced there’ll be a happy ending?”

He responded with thoughts around hope, suffering in prison, and why he fought on. Quoting him:

Well it’s the trend towards that (happy endings).

I have learned a lot in life. I have no regrets. No regrets.

So I had to endure. Crazy as I am but then… I thought it was the right decision.

Even an optimist realized it was kinda crazy. Four and a half years later, Anwar Ibrahim was elected as prime minister.

Optimism is difficult. Reality is painful. But dreams still do come true.

– – –

Other optimistic things that inspire me: Packy McCormick’s Not Boring, Wait But Why, Our World in Data

Pic from Lisa Fotios

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  • As usual you are a master at putting your thoughts into words. I felt as though I was speaking to myself while reading this. It always baffles me that why do people doubt everything rather than start by giving a benefit to the doubt and yes being an optimist can be rather lonely.

    • Hi Aman,

      Thanks for your kind words and dropping by. Yeah, actually optimism is a much better default place to be in, but I guess pessimism feels “safer.” Wishing you the best on your journey my fellow optimist!

  • I guess that is why Everybody likes Waymond in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.

    There are Youtube videos even arguing why Waymond’s optimism saves the Universe more than Evelyn’s kungfu did ;P. (Just joking, Datuk Michelle Yeoh kicks ass!)

    • Hahaha I had to think about that one for a while. Unfortunately didn’t really love the movie myself 😐

  • I’m reading a book called “The Opposable Mind” right now, and it speaks to this dichotomy. Not to think of things as “or”; instead look at them as “and”. So how can one be optimistic “and” also realistic and critical. We have the capacity to hold both concepts in our head and act at the same time.

    • Thanks Sashe bos for dropping by,

      Love the comment and concept. I find that people who can hold “opposing” concepts at the same time are highly valuable!

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