Yesterday’s post generated some really great discussion about optimism. This is a subject with a lot of strong opinions!
Most people wrote very thoughtful and interesting insights, but what struck me was the tone of scorn in a few of the pessimists’ comments, and the slight defensiveness in a few of the optimists’. Somehow there seems to be a perception that optimism is a weak stance—that the pessimists are the realists, and the optimists are fooling themselves.
Why is it cooler to be cynical than to give something a chance? Why are we embarrassed to admit we have hope or want to try something that may not work? I guess it’s because there are so many scams out there—nobody wants to be a sucker or get ripped off, so we assume almost everything is a scam until we hear otherwise. I think it’s easy to go too far with that, though. Some things really are good and really do work. Just because you want it to be true, doesn’t automatically mean it’s not.
I’ve been struggling with this concept for the past week or so. You see, I’ve been reading The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. This book made huge waves a few years ago by getting on Oprah. It says that the universe operates by the law of attraction, meaning that whatever you focus your thoughts and energy on is what you’ll attract to yourself.
I think there is good reason why most people are extremely skeptical of The Secret, and I think it’s important that we insist on applying critical thinking before blindly accepting such teachings. But when I started reading this book, I was disturbed to realize how embarrassed I was to admit I was reading it, and how deeply resistant I was to the idea of believing and expecting it to work. What’s up with that? If even reading a silly book is embarrassing and scary, how much harder is it to actually do something? After all, that requires effort, and it might not work, and people will know if it turns out badly and think I’m a fool!
Yet there are people out there doing things—big things, brazen things that require a lot of hope and putting themselves out there. And you know what? Those are the people I admire. I wouldn’t admire them less if their ventures failed. What would make me admire them less is if they watered themselves down and only gave it half a try… like I tend to do.
One of these awesome people, Chris Guillebeau, spoke near Nashville last night, and I went to see him. Chris is the author of the Unconventional Guides and The Art of Non-Conformity. He doesn’t have a desk job; he supports himself with his writing and other ventures. He’s working on visiting every country in the world, and he’s also spent a good bit of time doing volunteer service in Africa. In short, he’s done it. The stuff your parents, your friends, or society told you not to do because something terrible will happen (including: you won’t fit in!), he’s done it. His advice is this: stop doing what other people tell you to do. Stop not doing what other people tell you not to do. Be yourself. If you don’t know who that is, figure it out, then go be it. Pursue meaningful adventure instead of efficiency or materialism. Look for ways to give to others.
During the mingling time after the talk, it became clear that some of the other members of the audience had also done this. They said that fear is the hardest thing; they’re always amazed at how afraid they were that everything would fall apart, and how much better things went than they expected. They look back and think “That is what I was so afraid of?!”
Fear is what it comes down to. It seems safer to hide behind cynicism and assume nothing will work. But that’s not what the people who are changing the world do.
Maybe safety is overrated. I’m not saying pessimism is bad or we should all run around with rose-colored blinders on, blithely proclaiming that everything is perfect. But many of us, me especially, could use a little less fear and a little more hope, doing, and world-changing. If you’re one of those people, too, let’s get to work on that.
One place to start is Chris’s manifesto, A Brief Guide to World Domination–if you haven’t read it yet, check it out.