Why great thinkers balance optimism and pessimism

Leaning too far in either direction is a recipe for stagnation and perhaps even failure.

MICHIO KAKU: Leadership is understanding the challenges of the future, to working on scenarios of the future. Now, President Eisenhower, when he was a general, he was asked about his attitude toward victory, toward fights and toward war and he basically said that pessimists never win wars, only optimists win wars. And optimists what separates them from the pessimists? You see, the optimists see the future, the bright side of the future, the future that has opportunities, not the pessimists who simply says ah, I can't do it, not possible, end of story. That's it folks. So, you have to have not just optimism but you have to have one eye on the future.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: I'm a pessimist, but that's no reason to be gloomy. And that's become our mantra in some sense, and it seems perfectly appropriate when you think about the universe because the universe first of all isn't here to make us happy, it isn't here to please us and it doesn't give a damn what happens to us. In the far future of the universe is likely to be miserable as I talked about in my last book and I point out in my new book could be even more miserable. So, in a purposeless universe that may have a miserable future you may wonder well how can I go about each day? And the answer is we make our own purpose. We make our own joy.

JASON SILVA: And I've fallen in love with this idea of feedback loops. One of the things that Rich Doyle, who wrote "Darwin's Pharmacy," talks about is finding ways to become aware, to learn to perceive the feedback loops between our creative and linguistic choices and our consciousness and our experience. In other words, the extraordinary capacity that we have to sculpt and mold our lives. The spaces we inhabit, the people we surround ourselves with, by curating spaces, by curating circumstance we essentially co-author our experience. A lot of people go through life thinking that they don't have any control, that life is just happening to them but that's not true. We have a lot more control than we realize and this extraordinary control comes from the power of feedback loops. You literally can decide, can almost author an afternoon into being by planning to meet in a certain place with a certain person, listening to certain music, drinking a certain kind of wine. I've decided that I'm going to see the world through rose colored lenses, I'm going to be optimistic, I'm going to look for the beautiful in every possible experience. That intention, that agency coupled with action, with editorial discernment and saying okay I'm going to do this, I'm going to hang out with this person, it creates a self-amplifying feedback loop, in other words the intention to be optimistic makes me stumble upon all these things that make me feel more optimistic and so on and so forth.

KEVIN KELLY: Over almost 200 years every year has gotten a little bit better when we look at the scientific evidence. And while it's possible that next year everything could change, everything could collapse and fall to the ground, statistically, probabilistically it won't it will continue because 200 years has gone and next year it probably will continue. But if you look at the kind of current political regime around the world and the factors of pressures, environmental pressures, the pressures of distraction that we have from the new media then I think you have to resort to hope. In the long term optimists decide the future. It's the optimists who create all of the things that are going to be most important in our life because it was the optimists who built and invented all the things that are now important in our current lives. And I think people behave better when they're optimistic. There's absolutely a need to be critical and doubtful and skeptical and even pessimistic just like if you have a car you have to have brakes, you can't have a car no matter where it is without brakes. But it's the engine, the optimistic engine that keeps going and going and refuses to stop and it's only concerned about going forward that really drives a car, but you certainly need breaks to steer it.

WILLIAM MAGEE: Is it itself a form of stratification? Is there something about optimism that's a resource that we can understand as a psychological good like happiness? So if it's stratified in a population how is it associated with other kinds of stratification, income and so forth, education? And so, you're saying well class, the real interesting one is class. Everyone wants to know pull yourself up by your bootstraps, think positively you'll be successful, if you're optimistic you'll be successful. But of course, if you're successful you're going to be optimistic so there's the reverse causality thing and so taking class and looking at class is a really interesting part that I'll want to get to. And I think that's an interesting question because there's a lot of theory around sociology and emotions, around the idea that expectations are created, the ability to meet expectations generates energy, that energy is what allows people to do things, that emotional energy, and then it replicates itself. So, people are convinced to be optimistic, especially the middle classes, and if they're not able to achieve those expectations then their energy goes down and they become dissatisfied.

SILVA: There's always going to be the wildcard, there's always going to be the circumstances you can't plan for, there's always the unexpected the relevance and the serendipity, but just like that book "The Power of Pull" talks about we can funnel the serendipity or we can channel the serendipity funnel, we can help engender and engineer serendipity by the choices that we make every moment. And so, by cultivating rich social networks, by cultivating weak ties, not just close ties but the weak ties, by becoming connectors and by connecting others so that they connect us we create a world in which these self-amplifying feedback loops feed on top of each other. So, good circumstances lead to other good circumstances which lead to other good circumstances and each one of them encourages us to then live more openly and participate in that creative flow space and you can go on and on. But that requires a boldness of character as well because the realization of the dizzying freedom we have to compose our lives, if I can do anything it can be paralyzing, but I think that if we are able to courageously embrace the uncertainty of that freedom and then exercise discerning and smart and refined creative and linguist choices every step of the way we do have the capacity to turn our lives into a work of art.

KAKU: When I was a kid, when I was a child I had two role models. The first was Einstein. I read that he couldn't finish his greatest work and as a child I said to myself I want to help you finish it. I want to help finish it because it's the fundamentals of physics. But the other role model I had was, well, I used to watch "Flash Gordon" on TV every Saturday morning and he kind of like blew my mind away. Ray guns, cities in the sky, invisibility shields, monsters from outer space. And then I begin to realize that the two loves of my life were actually the same thing, that if you want to understand the future you have to understand science. You've got to pay your dues. That's where leadership will take you because you can see the future. That's what Eisenhower could do he could see the future of a war because he understood the mechanics of the war and how the war would progress. Seeing the future is the key to success in life, I think it's the key to intelligence and it's also the key to leadership as well. Now, you might say to yourself now wait a minute, I thought IQs were a good predictor of the future? Wrong. If you take a look at people with high IQs, yeah some of them do win the Nobel Prize, but a lot of them wind up as marginal people, petty criminals, people that are failures. And then you wonder why? Why is it that some people with high IQs never get anywhere? Well, the Air Force had this problem, you see the Air Force devised a test: what happens if your airplane is shot down over enemy territory in Vietnam and you were captured by the Vietnamese? Do something. What are you going to do? It turns out that the people with high IQs got paralyzed, flummoxed, they didn't know what to do they were paralyzed. What? You're captured behind enemy lines? What are you going to do? Give up? The people who came up with the most imaginative, the most creative ideas they were the ones who did not score so high on the IQ exam but they were creative, they saw the future. They came up with all sorts of schemes in which to escape. Now, I like to think of it this way: let's say you get a bunch of people, kids, and you ask them to rob a bank. That's your job: rob a bank. How would you do it? I think the people with high IQs would get all embarrassed, flummoxed, they wouldn't know what to do. Even people who want to become policemen of the future they would get all flummoxed. But, criminals they're constantly thinking about the future, master criminals now not the ones who are petty and just steal things off the grocery shelf, but the master criminals are the ones who constantly simulate the future. How do you rob this bank? How do you nail down the police? How do you get away? Where is your getaway car? These are the ones who have high intelligence. These are "the future leaders."

KELLY: If you have only brakes you don't go anywhere. And I think what we have right now is we have an imbalance between pessimism and optimism and we really need a lot more optimism about the future in order to have an engine keep going. And I think that one of the reasons why we maybe have an imbalance right now is because we have been burned so often by the promises of the optimists about how technology is going to bring us a kind of utopia. And I think nobody believes in utopia anymore, I certainly don't. But dystopia is actually not any better, and that's actually the only vision that we have of the future, which is really sort of made by Hollywood in some science fiction, which is of a dystopia that collapses. And I think that while we can't believe in a utopia I think a better vision of the future is protopia, this idea that we have incremental progress, that we're working and creeping very, very steadily but slowly towards betterment. So, every year is a little tiny better than the year before, not much but a little tiny better and that kind of incremental progress is really only visible when you turn around and look back behind you. Because half or even a one percent difference is really something we can't see every year and it's not going to be seen in the news. If you look at the news the news is about outliers, it's about unusual things, it's not about the slow evidence of progress, which is not seen in the news. So, if you want to see what's really happening in the world you can't look at the news you have to look at the scientific evidence, which is going to register a very small delta that is really not visible unless you turn around and look behind you and then you can see oh, 20 years this is real.

KRAUSS: We make our own purpose and it seems to me life is more precious because it's temporary and accidental and we should take advantage of that. And we have evolved brains and that allows us to ask questions not just about how the universe works but how we should behave. Now, it's a long philosophical debate about whether you can get ought from is and maybe you could never get ought from is and maybe the reason is the slave of passion, but one thing seems clear to me that without knowing what it is you can never get to ought or if you do the ought that you get to is silly. If you don't know the consequences of your actions, which is really what science tells us, then you can't assess how to behave. And so, understanding empirical phenomena plays a central role in leading a better life it seems to me and it should play a central role in public policy so that we as a society can make sound decisions about how to act in the common good.

KELLY: Civilization is not monumental heroic enterprise, it's the small creep of one percent betterment through centuries. And I think if we believe that progress is real then we can actually behave better. If we believe that progress is real we can still dream about making these new things because we know that even through the new technologies are going to introduce as many new problems as they solve and that most of the problems that we'll have in the future will come from new technology, you'll still go forward and make and invent those new things even though they will create new problems because those new problems themselves will birth new solutions, which will have new problems, but that circle and cycle keeps going round and round and there's a one percent net gain for each revolution and that's what we get out of this.

  • When it comes to thinking about the future, is it best to assume the best or the worst? Like with most things, it's actually a little column A and a little column B. This video features theoretical physicists, futurists, sociologists, and mavericks explaining the pros and cons of both.
  • "In the long term optimists decide the future," argues Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick for Wired and the magazine's founding executive editor. "It's the optimist who create all of the things that are going to be most important in our life." Kelly adds that, while every car runs on an optimistic engine, "you certainly need breaks to steer it."
  • Finding a balance between the optimism that fuels innovation and a grounded pessimism is the key to a better future.



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