Tagged: optimism

The Discontent Optimist

I’m an optimist and a big believer in consciously adopting an optimistic outlook.  I’m also a huge fan of discontentment.  I see these attitudes as complimentary, not contradictory.

Optimism is a belief in the possibility for a better future.  It’s about seeing opportunity in every situation.  A chance to improve the present condition.  It’s an eye trained to see the way in which the most good can be extracted from everything.

Discontentment is a restlessness with the status quo.  It’s a refusal to leave well enough alone or make peace with, “that’s just the way things are.”  Ludwig von Mises describes discontentment with present circumstances as one of the three preconditions to any purposeful human action.

Discontentment coupled with pessimism can make you depressed.  Discontentment coupled with optimism leads you to create the world you want.

It’s not all roses.  Which means there is an amazing opportunity to plant some.

The Opposite of the Crowd

More than one successful investor has advised to observe what everyone believes and do the opposite.  When people are optimistic, be a pessimist.  When people are pessimistic, be an optimist.  When confidence is high and prices are rising, sell.  When confidence is low and everyone is running for the hills, buy with confidence.

I was considering this advice and trying to decide what the current sentiment is.  Are people optimistic or pessimistic?  Are they buying or selling?  I can recall a few epochs in my life where it was very clear.  In the ’90’s everyone was elated about tech investments and day-trading was everywhere.  Then the bubble popped and things cooled down as people become cynical about software companies and the internet.  In the early-mid 2000’s optimism was everywhere again.  The Dow would only ever go up.  Houses were a can’t-lose proposition.  Everyone became a real-estate speculator with pride. After ’08 there was a period of pessimism, but it didn’t seem to last all that long.

For the last several years it’s hard to identify clear optimism or pessimism.  There are a few sectors – like Silicon Valley and the VC world – that seem to be flying high, but overall there is a lot of indecision and indifference.  If you were trying to do the opposite of the crowd right now, it’d be pretty hard to discern what to do.  Everyone is cautious and confused.

Rather than thinking only in terms of pessimism and optimism we can broaden our lens and possibly identify an answer.  To behave opposite an indecisive crowd is to be decisive.  Now is the time to be definite.  Now is not the time for waffling and over-analysis.  Identify an opportunity, develop a theory, and act on it with definite purpose.  In this environment the consequences of failure are not all that bad, and there is a huge competitive advantage to decisive action because hardly anyone is taking it.

The Doomsayers are Right (but so are the optimists)

One hundred years of horror

The first visitor looks grim. He tells you that “the war to end all wars” will soon begin. It will encompass the globe and destroy millions of lives. Cities will be decimated. The Great War will have a scope and level of brutality never before imagined in human history. It will be followed by economic collapse, political upheaval, and tremendous human suffering.

A decade later, the largest economies in the world will teeter, then collapse. Hyperinflation, panic, stock market crashes, breadlines, and financial ruin will be the norm. Hunger, poverty, and desperation like no modern society has ever experienced will span a decade. Before recovery, war will break out again — this one even more catastrophic than the last. Tens of millions will die.

A new form of evil will show its head. Totalitarian regimes aided by advanced weaponry and propaganda machines will lead the mass execution of millions. Weapons of mass destruction will be created, and two will be deployed, leveling cities in minutes with effects lasting years. Governments the world over will grow in power and brutality. Control over all facets of personal and economic life will expand.

The second great war will end and economic growth will resume, but not without constant smaller wars across the globe. Government will balloon out of all proportion. Surveillance will become ever present, even in the freest states. Acts of terrorism will be all over the news. Inflation, regulation, and taxation will increase once again to levels rivaling those that led to the great economic collapse. Countries will go bankrupt, drowning in debt. Police will turn on citizens regularly. Finally, the first traveler concludes, all signs in 2015 point to another painful reckoning.

But the other traveler seems unfazed by his companion’s tale. “Do you have anything to add?” you ask hesitantly.

One hundred years of human achievement

He smiles and begins to recount the next century with excitement. Automobiles are mass produced. Soon, they are everywhere. Temperature-controlled vehicles, homes, and workplaces pop up and spread. New forms of communication that instantly connect people across countries and then the world proliferate at incredible speed. People get healthier and wealthier the world over.

Air travel takes over where automobiles leave off. Humans safely traverse the world many thousands of feet in the air. Appliances do all the most tedious, painful, and time-consuming tasks — and not just in wealthy homes.

Hunger is no longer a problem in developed countries, and it is increasingly rare throughout the world. Common diseases like polio and malaria are all but eradicated with medical and pharmaceutical developments. Average lifespan dramatically increases; infant mortality plummets.

Information is freed in ways never before imaginable. Every book ever written can be transmitted anywhere in the world through crisscrossing networks of data transmission. Humans enter outer space. Satellites beam information, video, and voices back and forth around the globe. Rich and poor alike hold in their hands devices more powerful than anything kings or tycoons of ages past could have hoped for.

Money and memories alike can be sent anywhere, anytime, easily. Anyone can learn anything without access to prestigious centers of knowledge. Gatekeepers for information are no longer impediments to human cooperation and progress. Laboring in fields and factories is decreasingly necessary, as a host of new and intelligent machines take on these tasks.

Finally, the second traveler concludes, humans focus more than ever on creativity, freedom, and fulfillment.

Who’s correct?

Both travelers have described the same future for the same planet. Neither description is untrue, and both are important.

It’s easy to feel confused by conflicting theories about the future. If you have a firm grasp on economics and political philosophy and get stuck in the political news cycle, it’s depressing. You look at the state of our economy and government intervention and see nothing but storm clouds on the horizon. There’s no way the mountains of debt, the constant currency debasement, the damaging social programs and interventions, and the buildup of regulations and nanny-statism can result in anything but an ugly future.

But if you’re up on the start-up scene, you hear tech optimists describing a future of 3-D printing, cryptocurrency, robotics advancements, colonizing Mars, and mapping the human genome, and you can’t help but see the future burning bright.

Both groups are accurately describing the possible and probable future, and there are lessons to be drawn from each.

Will history repeat?

There are striking similarities between today’s developed democracies and ancient Rome. Bread and circuses and political decay may lead to a Roman-style collapse. Then again, we have something today that the citizens of the Roman-ruled world did not: digital technology.

We are able to coordinate and collaborate via dispersed networks in ways individuals in the past never could. The centrally planned state, with all its military and monetary might, is a lumbering beast compared to the nimble, adaptive entrepreneur and citizen today. Yes, the state may use technology to spy and oppress, but always through a top-down management structure. We are a headless conglomerate of individual nodes, networked across the globe, that cannot be destroyed.

Maybe the US dollar will, in fact, collapse. Maybe states will go bankrupt. Maybe government services will fall into disarray. And maybe in the middle of it all, individual humans and civil society won’t even notice.

Do you remember how the Cold War ended? Neither do I. It just kind of did. Do you remember the great collapse of government-monopolized phone lines? Neither do I. Cell phones just emerged and it stopped mattering. The post office is in perpetual deficit. So what? Email and FedEx and Amazon drones will continue to make it irrelevant.

You see, striking as the similarities to great collapses of the past may be, history is not an inevitable indicator of the future. Collapse of government systems in an increasingly complex, market-oriented world may not spell disaster for society at large. It may spell improvement.

Problems are real … real opportunities

Take your knowledge of unsustainable government and extrapolate it into the future. Yes, these bloated systems are unsustainable. Don’t turn a blind eye and pretend it doesn’t matter. Instead, let the insights of your inner doomsayer inform the actions of your inner optimist.

Every government problem is an entrepreneurial opportunity. Stifling licensing or work restrictions or immigration bans can be overcome with peer-to-peer technology, the sharing economy, virtual work software, and more. Bad monetary policy can be sidestepped with cryptocurrency. Defunct educational institutions bubbling over with debt and devalued credentials can be ignored while private alternatives emerge. Clumsy socialized medicine, transportation, and communication systems are all begging for innovation. Entire countries can be exited — physically or digitally.

The innovators must be realistic enough to see problems with the status quo and optimistic enough to innovate around them instead of merely shaking their fists.

Informed optimism as adventure

It’s good to wake up to the tragic missteps of government policy that surround us. But if lovers of liberty only ever point to the problems, predict trouble, and head for the hills, the future may indeed be lost. If, instead, we see those problems as opportunities and talk about the possibility in front of us, we stand a chance. Optimism is a powerfully attractive force that invites bright minds to join us. As F.A. Hayek once said,

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.… Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.

We must recapture the intellectual and practical adventure of not just demonstrating the failures of a planned society, but building the glories of a free one. Only then will the world look at us and say, “Why are you so optimistic? What do you know? How can I be a part of it?”

One hundred years from now

There are two stories we can see unfolding in our future. One of increasing political foolishness leading to dystopia. One of emerging technology and innovation leading to utopia. Neither is untrue. Both are instructive.

What would you expect to hear from a traveler from 2115? Which story brings out your best self and inspires you to live free and help others do the same?

We need doomsayers: they help discover and highlight the greatest areas of opportunity for optimists and entrepreneurs to seize on. Listen to them, then act to overcome or sidestep or make irrelevant the problems they predict.

On Being Truthful

What if you resolved to be fully truthful?  I don’t mean merely not telling lies, but not hiding truths either.  Most of us immediately assume this would be hurtful to others.  All those hard truths we sometimes hold back or sugar coat would be out in the open.  It’s revealing of our thought process that the assumption is that being fully truthful would mean sharing more bad news or negative opinion than we currently do.  I think it’s also false.

If you take a few moments to really absorb the full truth of your situation you begin to realize that the harsher truths you refrain from voicing are just the first level.  That house is ugly.  I don’t like working with my boss.  My kids annoy me.  Get past these facts and feelings you normally mask and you’ll find a larger, deeper set of truths you equally overlook.  The sunshine is beautiful, and it’s there every day.  I never have to worry about it.  I’ve never gone hungry.  My kids make me laugh.  This coffee tastes wonderful.

I’m not suggesting you actually go about your day openly sharing every truth about your reality.  I’m not even suggesting the beautiful is always greater than the ugly (though I strongly suspect it is).  I only wish to challenge the notion that being fully truthful means sharing more bad news than most.  Truth is simply the full nature of our universe, and for everyone and everything that subtly bothers you there’s probably someone or something else that surreptitiously delights you.

Whether you share it or not, explore the full truth around you.  Don’t stop at the easy, negative truths.  If you give it to yourself straight you might actually be more, not less optimistic.

Why I Don’t Follow the News

I rarely follow the news and almost never get it direct from news sources. What news I’m up on tends to find it’s way to me through filters – blogs I read, emails from friends, Facebook posts and hearsay.

This is not because of laziness or a lack of concern with being informed.  Indeed, I love information, trivia, knowledge and truth.  However, I found that keeping up on the news, especially reading papers and watching news shows, significantly diminished my quality of life.  It made me angry and depressed more often than not.

This is not because the cold, hard realities of terrestrial life are simply all bad news.  In fact every day billions of people are voluntarily, peacefully co-operating and being made better off through trade, commerce, community, and friendship.  Millions of things are invented, quality of life improves, the creative destruction of the market (in both goods and ideas) brings about untold beauty and opportunity.  Indeed, with a little bit of reflection it is not hard to see how vast, mysterious and awesome life is, even in the smallest tasks of a typical day.

But, probably for rational reasons, the news chooses to focus on those relatively few happenings between relatively few people that are violent, coercive and troubling.  A disproportionate amount of space is devoted to that tiny sliver of our individual and societal existence, politics, and nearly all the rest to all the other dangers and troubles in the universe.

It’s not an accurate picture of the world, nor is it particularly useful.  I think it was for this reason (and perhaps the generally bad quality of the writing) that C.S. Lewis warned against frequent newspaper reading.  Mark Twain (I think) said “Those who don’t read the news are uninformed.  Those who do are misinformed”.

Does this mean we turn a blind eye to reality so that we can be happy?  Isn’t that a form of escapism?  Frankly, I think that’s the wrong question.

There is a phenomenal scene in The Silver Chair, part of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, where a group of children and a kindly swamp creature are trapped in an underground world by an evil queen.  The queen has them under a sort of spell and she is trying to convince them that there is no outside world, but only the cavernous underworld.  When they object and say that the outside world is real she asks them what it is like.  They tell her it has a sun, which is much like the lights in the cave only bigger and brighter; it has lions which are much like the cats of the underworld only grander and more fierce, and so on.

The queen remarks that there is no outside world at all, but that the children have simply taken things from the real world and pretended they were bigger and better.  It was a mere game, and the reality was in the caves all along.

The group is on the verge of being persuaded of this sad state when the humble swamp creature proclaims that even if this were true, what would it say about the real world?  What kind of world would it be if children could easily create a make-believe world that was so much better?  Even if the outside world is make-believe, he declares, it’s so much preferable to the “real world” underground that he’d rather go on pretending.  At that the spell was broken, hope restored and the deceptive queen’s power rendered inert.

It is more than a mere cliche to say that perception is reality.  Expectation is also reality.  Believing a better world is real and possible makes this world better, if for no other reason than that positive, optimistic people are more pleasant to be around.

The evidence also supports optimism.  Who could ever have predicted the kinds of technologies and opportunities we have available today even just 50 or 100 years ago?  The iPhone alone is jam packed with capabilities that were the stuff of sci-fi even a decade ago.

Why then do we listen to the news when it constantly reports on the fearful side of the present and future?  That is only one view of reality.  It’s a tiny slice of all that is, and a very unrepresentative slice at that.  If a human can only take in so much of reality at once, why would I focus on the negative in a sea of positive?

I’d rather create my own reality – a powerful, free, beautiful one – than get angry about the false reality portrayed by the news.  If that’s escapism, so be it.  Escaping something bad into something better is nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s a choice to perceive and embrace reality in a more useful, constructive manner.

It doesn’t mean injustice doesn’t exist, or that there are not things I am hoping and fighting to change – not least of which are in myself.  It just means there are better ways of doing it and thinking about it.

Instead of letting it be selected for me, I choose each day what bits of news I take in about the vast and wondrous universe.  It beats the hell out of the paper.