On Optimism 2.0
Two things that have helped me think more positively about the future
Always look on the bright side of life... *whistling*
This classic song on optimism is played at the end of the movie Life of Brian, a Monty Python production. It is paired with a scene of dozens of crucified people on a hill, sombrely singing along.
Yes, this is a text-book example of masterful irony… and also how we love to depict optimists generally.
Oh, how we perpetuate the “hapless optimist” stereotype. It’s extremely relatable, and we get to laugh at the truth and absurdity of it all.
Yet, I can’t help but question: is this it? Is optimism so useless that we’ll only see it as a tool for irony?
This week, I’ve had the chance to sample a different type of optimism. One that is much more useful and impactful than solely being the butt-end of satire and memes.
Let’s call it Optimism 2.0
The first dose came in the form of a recent TED talk by Kevin Kelly.
(Quick note: I’ve written about KK before. His perspective is both fascinating and makes surprising sense to me, making me want to emulate some of his spiky views in my personal values.)
But why is he talking about optimism? He may be a tech and gadget nerd, but he is primarily a “packager of ideas”, as he describes himself.
In his talk, he first outlines why we don’t see a lot of optimism around. There are three main reasons for this, according to him:
Survivorship bias. The results of past optimistic takes are all the bad things that aren’t happening right now. Optimism gave rise to modern medicine, vaccines, etc, which reduced issues like child mortality by a lot. We don’t count all the kids that would have died, had there been no modern medicine.
Bad things happen quickly. Our news cycles very quickly, and leans towards the moderately bad stuff. And now that every TV can funnel the bad stuff aggregated from the whole world, that’s a lot of bad stuff coming through your news source. KK says, if our news only updated every 100 years, the headlines would be very different!
Incremental improvements. Small nudges towards improvement on a civilizational scale is glacial change, but it is change nonetheless. It is “slow and almost unnoticeable, invisible, but not insignificant!”
Then he lists three reasons why we should be optimistic about optimism:
History is proof that we have consistently improved over time. This is not an optimistic take, this is a realist view of human history.
Humans have created a powerful tool for continuous societal improvement: civilization. Civilization can be summarized in two words: Trust and Cooperation. This enables us to also sacrifice immediate gains in order to provide outsized gains for future generations. We also trust that future gens can solve problems that we can’t solve today.
Optimists embrace problems. It cannot be helped that one new solutions generate five new problems. But in KK’s words, “problems don’t impede progress; problems are the conduit for progress.” We progress by working through problems. If there are no limits to problems, there are also no limits to progress! 🤯
Kevin Kelly wraps up his TED talk with this call to action:
We have a moral obligation to be optimistic, because when we’re optimistic, we can shape the future, we can become better ancestors, we can expand our reach -- create things bigger than ourselves. And we can be a realist in aligning ourselves with this long arc of history and embracing problems as opportunities. With optimism, we can use it as a power to create the future that we want.
This is the way.
The second dose came in the form of a new YouTube channel by ex-Vox correspondent Cleo Abram called Huge if True. Her very first video on why she decided to go independent outlines her vision, or way of looking at the world.
And it is refreshingly optimistic.
Both Abrams and KK mention this story: There was so much negative news about failed attempts, better competition and hot takes on powered flight at the time when the Wright brothers were doing their experiments. Yet they were able to prove everyone wrong!
What energy they must have had to do what everyone was telling them was impossible. This is the sort of unbridled optimism that both Abrams and KK are talking about.
Abrams only has 6 videos up, but she has already influenced my thinking on energy, the internet, drugs, wombs, and fracking. I highly recommend her channel, and she’s also active on TikTok for those of you who are into that! (I’m not… yet.)
Ideas are the power source of Optimism 2.0. They help us articulate potential futures that we can work towards and make reality. Perhaps this re-frame on optimism helps you, as it is helping me right now. What are you optimistic about lately?
Give this letter a ❤️ if you enjoyed it (and do share the letter with friends who may appreciate it too!)
Until next time, stay safe and stay curious.