Pessimists and Optimists are Both Full of Shit. Try Realism.

Read Time: 9 minutes

Hard realism doesn’t get enough credit in the the self improvement space with all this talk about positive thinking. Positive thinking is about keeping your head up, staying focused on the goal and not seeing the obstacles in your way. But how do you stay positive when your world collapses around you, your last client quits, your wife leaves you, or your friend dies? How do you stay optimistic when you’re drowning?

Few people talk about how to hit the sweet-spot between hard realism, observance of fact, and reality distorting positivity. Like most things in our attention deprived and click-baity world, moderate and subtle solutions become hard-lined headlines. Rarely do we see an article describing “How to sit with discomfort, slowly strengthen your will-power, and become better by moderating yourself.” Discomfort? Slow? Will-power? Moderation? NOPE NOPE NOPE. Give me a pill.

How positivity can make the fall hurt so much more

Let’s take a closer look at our favourite heroine, the optimist. She holds her ideals high, fights her oppressors, discovers the secret formula to success, takes home the treasure, and lives in her fantastic new world of equality and farts that smell like croissants.

Inspiring, right? Her world oozes positivity and success without the boring, character building, repetitive grind of slow growth and sacrifice.

We all know a version of that sheltered and positive person who distorts reality to believe everybody is equal and everything is amazing, but when a crisis strikes and the food is running out, she’d be the first one to turn into a rabid animal and suggest cannibalizing the fat guy.

It’s the idealist with the false sense of reality who hits the ground the hardest, grasping wildly for anything and anyone to break her fall. If she does manage to avoid that big fall (she won’t, it hits all of us eventually), continued positivity and optimism will still make her fragile to upcoming dangers as she offloads the responsibility for her life to “the universe”.

It’s the idealist with the false sense of reality who hits the ground the hardest Click To Tweet

There’s a saying in the middle east that makes me quietly back away into the bushes every time I hear it: “Inshallah” or “God willing”. “God willing” is a cultural go-to excuse for those not wanting to exert energy and will-power to make things happen. It outsources that responsibility to God and assumes that when things go right, God willed it, and when they go wrong, it’s the damn government, or something. God willing is crossing your fingers that you’ll arrive safely and on time when you haven’t filled the gas tank, changed the tires, or replaced the brakes.

The big redeeming quality of optimists is their willingness to think and dream big. Optimists who think without limitations, stay focused on the goal, and put the work in are a force to be reckoned with. After the optimist falls, and observes the facts of why she fell, if she is still able to maintain some semblance of her optimism, it can lessen the blows of failure and get her back on track to solving her problems.

Pessimism Masquerading as Realism

On the other hand, we have the realist. Realists observe reality, can’t be so easily fooled, and are skeptical of their world. They know those success stories are bullshit. They know that not everyone can win, not everyone gets lucky, not everyone has the rich uncle, the God-given talent, or the brilliant mentor. They know that in order to get ahead you need to put in a mountain of work and be willing to step over others to get there, and in all likelihood things still may not work out.

Sorry, did I say realist? I meant pessimist.

Pessimists lower their expectations, and expect the worst as a way to save themselves from becoming disappointed. But rather than face that level of cowardice, they tell themselves they are just being realistic.

Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist. - George Carlin Click To Tweet

Pessimists masquerading as realists assume something won’t work from the beginning, and work to find evidence to support their assumption. The pessimist focuses on what they don’t want expecting that if they just chip away at all the inconveniences of life they will eventually find happiness and success. If only I had _____, I would finally be happy. They ask themselves “Why can’t it be done?” instead of “How can it be done?”.

There are no success stories on the planet built on 'How won’t this work?' Click To Tweet

Experience is the best teacher

Pessimists forfeit their chance to experiment, fail, learn, adapt, and eventually succeed. They take the easy way out by looking for the closest truthy sounding argument against taking action, and lean on it as a reason to continue doing nothing. It’s a cop-out born out of a fear of disappointment or failure.

When you talk to successful people, you realize that “overnight success” is actually “thousands of hours of work and mountains of failed attempts”.

Ask any online marketing veteran to show you the graveyard of dead and defunct Facebook pages of business ideas they thought would make them rich. Depending on how you look at it, every failed business can be a badge of honor and proof that you put in the effort, experimented, and learned.

Every failed business in my portfolio is a reminder of how I will not be doing things in the future.

Realism is not scientific – science has got its own dogmas

Most of us think we’re realists. We confuse our pessimism with modern, realistic, science-based thinking. But most of the time we’re not using the scientific method. Science isn’t about looking at a situation and saying it is false until it is proven to be true.

Science is about testing assumptions, working out a theory, and not coming to a conclusion until there is sufficient evidence to make a case. We don’t say we know when we don’t know, we admit we don’t know and continue testing assumptions.

Strangely, that fact seems to be lost among some people in the scientific community. There are many commonly held beliefs in science that are blatantly missing evidence, or have mountains of evidence proving the contrary. For example, certain psy phenomena have been widely studied with convincing results, but scientists who talk about this can often become ostracised, simply for pointing out the data.

Take for example Rupert Sheldrake’s 10 Dogmas of Science. I made an infographic series about it:

Don’t delude yourself into believing that because you think something won’t work, you are being realistic. The pessimist is no more realistic than the optimist, they just expect things to go bad instead of good. If you’re going to delude yourself anyway, at least be optimistic. An optimist isn’t such an insufferable cunt to be around.

Average is a trap

Pessimism also comes from comparing ourselves to and competing with the wrong people. We compare ourselves to our peers to feel good when we’re ahead, or motivate us when we lag behind, but this is a recipe for average. What most of us don’t realize is being average is the hardest path to take. Average is where all the competition is.

Average is the hardest path, that's where all the competition is. Click To Tweet

We look at the opportunities around us that are most obvious; the ones that everyone else sees. We notice the hordes of people lining up to compete for them. With so little imaginative thinking and so many people competing, we can’t help but think “there just isn’t enough to go around”.

I’m hugely guilty of this in the past. Optimism sent me to audio school to become a recording engineer at a time when the recording industry was in decline, studios were closing down all over the country, and competition was at its peak.

Pessimism made me grind for five years thinking I had to take whatever I could get, often working for free to build a portfolio just so I could beat my competitors who were applying for the same $12/hour part time job as a studio intern. It doesn’t get dumber than that.

I expected that my hard work and dedication would be enough to make me a success. I was unrealistically optimistic about my chances, and pessimistic about my options. Eventually, after years of depression, a mountain of debt, and a feeling that I would never succeed, I quit music recording altogether.

The idealized version of success ignores facts like work, money, and time investment

We allow pessimism to set the bar low and optimism to hope for better result than what is possible.

Marketers and media take this weakness and milk it for all its worth, as is evidenced by the popularity of overnight success stories and get rich quick schemes.

We compare ourselves to successful people, but then become depressed when we fail to meet their level of accomplishment. We start viewing success stories as out of reach fictions that only happen to the anointed, talented, rich, or beautiful.

We ignore the timing, the market conditions, available capital, the 30+ failed attempts, and the thousands of hours of practise. We assume that if we don’t reach the same heights of success with the minimal time and effort that we perceive it takes, we must be stupid or insufficient.

Success is nothing but resilience and adaptation

How many times do you try? How well do you adjust your strategy after you fail? If you miss one of these components you either try the same thing a million times, or you adjust your strategy too fast without giving it the chance to work. I’ve been guilty of both.

The facts are:

  • If you’ve tried the same thing a dozen times with no change, it might be a flawed strategy. Seek feedback or mentorship. Don’t feel you need to give up altogether. Adjust.
  • If the change is gradual, keep going. People often expect instant results, but that’s not how it is most of the time. As long as you keep getting closer to your goal every day, you are on the right path.
  • If you’ve tried something once and it didn’t work, maybe you need to adjust your expectations. Just because it didn’t work the first time doesn’t mean a little repetition won’t get you there. I’ve met enough dumb yet successful people to know that turning the mind off and doing the right thing over and over again is often all it takes.

True Realism

True realism is rare, because it requires that you sit with the facts that make you uncomfortable without telling yourself fairytales.

Comfort with discomfort is at the heart of realism. In our Western cultures we experience a visceral aversion to “negative” thoughts or images, and we frown upon anyone who speaks the inconvenient truth.

Decades of abundant choices in shopping centers, sheltering helicopter parents, Macbooks falling from the sky, and participation ribbons have made us a culture of pussies. Within that tiny comfort zone, we do mental gymnastics to see ourselves as being realistic. And we see all others as doomsayers, conspiracy theorists, special cases, or “talented” – my least favourite word.

We don’t realize we’re smack in the middle of our comfort zone which permits us not to take action or responsibility, or face the dark side of our mind and our world.

People who confuse their pessimism or optimism with realism are very dangerous to themselves and the rest of the world. They’re the kind of people who assume the consequences of global warming will never come, the store shelves will always be full, and the other 7 billion people on the planet will never come knocking to reclaim their share of the resources and land.

Final Thought: Cherry pick the useful bits

Be optimistic with your goals, pessimistic with your plans, and committed to observing facts. Click To Tweet
  • Be boundlessly optimistic with your goals, relentlessly pessimistic with your planning, and staunchly committed to observing facts.
  • Strengthen your mind; you don’t need to have the will of a renunciant, but if you can’t put down the fork, keep your pants on, shut the laptop, or go to the gym, you may need to investigate why you’re such pussy. Don’t listen to people who give you excuses not to exercise will. Will is a muscle.
  • Practise strengthening your will power by denying yourself things. Intermittent fasting has done wonders for strengthening my willpower and resilience.
  • Leave 30 minutes early, rotate your tires, check your brake pads. God doesn’t give a shit if you’re going to be late or if you get killed in a head-on collision.
  • Investigate your emotions until you reach a source that is grounded in evolutionary drives. If you’re a woman, ask yourself why dominant men turn you on or piss you off so much. What is it about rape that makes you feel ill or aroused? What is the role that domination plays in the evolution of our species?
  • If you’re a man, ask yourself why rejection makes you feel impotent. Ask yourself why you suppress the part of you that wants to run around, fighting and fucking everything. Why would nature build in those instincts? You don’t have to engage in any of those behaviours, but knowing the evolutionary basis of them grants you some elevation over the actions that are born of instinct.
  • Most importantly, face the fucking facts, especially when you feel uncomfortable in your gut. Investigate statistics, don’t just read headlines, and focus on the shit that matters. Everyone is talking about terrorism, but more people are killed by furniture and bees each year. People are arguing about bathroom rights for transgender people while their reproductive rights are being threatened by anti-abortion religious nuts. Are we having the right conversations?

Consider it toughness tax or mental weightlifting. If you don’t learn to sit with discomfort, then eventually life is going to give you the circumstances where you’ll be forced into it.

 

 

Mike is a Futurist, Entrepreneur, Psychonaut, and Podcaster at FutureThinkers.org, a writer at CuttingMachinery.org, cofounder of Plovdiv.Digital, and a designer at GiantSupernova.com. Mike has been a digital nomad and lived and worked in 6 countries. He is also the designer of The Cutting Machinery Meditation App. He's a supporter of basic income, sustainable living, and he plays the drums.
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