The Perils of Pessimism & The Power of Positivity
Posted on October 21, 2014 by Blake Leath
Ten months before succumbing to pancreatic cancer at age 47, Carnegie Mellon’s Randy Pausch made it clear where he stood on the Tigger/Eeyore debate in his final lecture, which ultimately sold 4 ½ million copies in the U.S. alone when committed to paper as The Last Lecture. The runaway bestseller has now been translated into 46 languages.
It seems the world loves Tigger, in part because he—like each of us at our very best—bounces rather than breaks. He’s the ultimate proprietor of the proverbial lemonade stand, always making the very best from the worst life has to offer.
In a world besotted with news, soundbytes, spin and social media, we are similarly saturated in hyperbole and hysteria, much of it negative. It’s difficult to turn on and tune in without soon wishing to tune out. Terrorism, “fearbola,” the long tail of 2008, Congressional gridlock, wars without end, crime, thoughtlessness, selfishness, shallowness…it’s understandable that after prolonged exposure to virtually any newscast, one finds him or herself slowly devolving into Eeyore.
Be they good or bad, our attitudes and behaviors—like yawning and laughing—are often contagious, and all the more so when they are extreme. It’s not the lukewarm and middlers who influence us most, it’s the superstars and the slugs, the hot and the cold, the zealots and the absolutely catatonic who seem to motivate or demotivate us the most. The tiggers cajole, challenge and champion, often bringing out our best, while the eeyores serve as cautionary tales, reminding us what happens when one loses his passion, purpose or hope.
Any time one finds herself discouraged, daunted or down, it’s helpful to consider “The Six P’s,” each and every one of which was demonstrated by Pausch and admittedly run like an undercurrent throughout the entire philosophies of Pooh himself, but which you’ll similarly find in any optimistic archetype, from Terry Fox and Viktor Frankl and King George VI and Helen Keller and Winston Churchill to Clara Barton and Rosa Parks and Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony and George Washington Carver and Teddy Roosevelt, who captured the sentiment of tiggerness so perfectly on April 23, 1910 when he spoke at the Sorbonnes in Paris, saying, in part:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Both optimism and pessimism are incontrovertibly contagious, but the former bolsters our immune system, while the latter simply makes us—and those around us—ill. But if one were to journey toward optimism, by what stars would he chart his course? Is there such a constellation? Indeed there is, as demonstrated by the aforementioned superstars, so many others like them, and enumerated here:
1. Perspective. The primary difference between the dour and the dynamic is perspective. It is from perspective that we see the following flow.
2. Proportion. When bad things happen, the pessimist (Eeyore) blows things out of proportion. The optimist (Tigger) keeps things in proportion.
3. Pervasiveness. For the pessimist, one bad thing becomes universal, leaking and tainting everything it touches. The optimist partitions “that one bad thing.”
4. Permanence. For the pessimist, bad things become lasting, while optimists see them for what they generally are: temporary.
5. Personalization. Pessimists are blamers, waving their accusatory finger at others, and pointing out the window at those whom they perceive as responsible for their own problems. Optimists are owners, taking responsibility for their choices, the consequences, and staring in the mirror at the captain of their ship (or, as described in Invictus and recounted by Nelson Mandela day after day for the majority of his adult life, “the captain of my soul”).
6. Power. Pessimists behave as if they are hapless and helpless victims to a buggy code that lost a zero or one somewhere along the way, while optimists assume control of their own software and rewrite it to achieve a new and better outcome.
We do well to remember Tolstoy who wrote, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself” because, ultimately, regardless our role, each and every one of us is in charge of us…and is an influencer in his/her own right. A force for good, positivity and possibility, or for negativity, criticism or despair.
Far better, it seems, to be realistic, of course—but optimistically so. After all, the perils of pessimism are well-documented and undesirable all the way down the line. Doom and gloom may sell tickets and lather crowds, but they never win elections, rarely rally, and have a very poor track record for catalyzing communities or companies toward any sustainable change or culture.
But Pausch, or Tigger himself, why, they seem to have tails so springy and levers so long that—time and again—the world is moved.
Please forgive any errors, omissions or abruptness; this post was conceived around midnight, completed on an iPhone, and uploaded while being jostled in line at TGI Friday's in an airport. But I CHOSE to upload it nonetheless, so any shortcomings are mine and mine alone.