Optimism is sometimes dismissed as a kind of cognitive bias. The optimists want the world to be better than it is, they do not see the reality of the way the world is changing, they invest in hopes not facts.
In contrast pessimists are seen as wise, realistic and clear-eyed. The reality, of course, is that both groundless optimism and relentless pessimism can be dismissed as biases, but the key to getting an edge is to explore iterative optimism.
First, it is just a question of where you start.
If your starting assumption is that the world is getting worse, your ability to spot improvements that can be great investments or worthwhile endeavors will be limited by that initial assumption. You may avoid a few downsides, but you will never bet on the real game changers.
If your starting assumption is that something will make the world just a little better you stand more ready to explore what it could mean and how it can be helpful to you in your own work. You can then update your beliefs and get to a good sense of what is happening.
If you start out by asking ”how will this improve things?” you are likely to be better off than if you start out by asking ”what is likely to go wrong here?”
Second, it is a question about how large your assumptions are.
You just need to believe in the next step
Successful optimists practice optimism in small, achievable increments. It is not necessary to think that we will cure cancer, end world hunger and reach the stars. It is enough to think that we are improving survival chances, reducing the number of people who suffer from malnutrition and improving our ability to mine the near earth asteroid fields.
You just need to believe in the next step, not put faith in an abstract vision.
So far we’ve got an intellectual strategy that starts from assuming improvements are more likely than degeneration and then progresses by soberly assessing the next step in those improvements. Compare that to the strategy that dismisses and devalues all new ideas that it does not understand - the pessimist’s stance - and you realize that optimism is much more powerful.
Now, this intellectual strategy is underpinned by a belief in the long term arc of humanity bending towards progress, but it does not need the arc. It does not need to say that all problems will be solved, just that we will make improvements and solve the problems we are working on now. In fact, we may not even know which problems we will have to solve in the future - just that the present problems will be solved or irrelevant.
The optimist only needs to believe that the number of solvable concrete problems are greater than the number of unsolvable concrete problems at hand in this very moment; that we unlock more capabilities all the time and that these can be combined to solve even more problems.
Yet so very many people believe the opposite, or at least refuse to see that the network of possibilities is expanding quickly to open new paths for us to explore.
The birth and evolution of Wikipedia
Optimists try things. Pessimists don’t. That is another aspect of the optimist’s edge. An optimist will be open to making an experiment - in fact experimentation is the quintessential optimist approach to life and the world - and check what happens. A pessimist assumes the experiment will fail and so never learns anything new.
Pessimism progresses by dismissing opportunities, optimism engages in experiments to explore the world.
One example has always struck me as especially fascinating, and that is the birth and evolution of Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales bet on the idea that a great Internet encyclopedia would replace paper encyclopedias was an optimist’s bet to begin with. When he made it it seemed likely that we would have CD-rom databases and perhaps even still buy paper encyclopedias for tradition’s sake. But then comes the killer: he also bet on this encyclopedia being edited by ... anyone.
A pessimist, at this point, throws up their hands and leaves. This is blatantly and absurdly optimistic. Not only does he think people will care enough about knowledge to participate in such an exercise - without pay - he also believes that they will be altruistic enough to do it in a way that ensures quality and comprehensive coverage.
If there ever was an archetype of an optimistic idea in the Internet age - this is it. It is a bet on human nature, on technology, on institutional change and on broad engagement and participation.
And it worked.
This shows a couple of interesting things.
First, that anyone who dismissed this idea and bet on the old encyclopedias lost their money quickly. Betting against optimists is a dangerous thing.
Second, that optimists benefit from network effects. Not only did Jimmy Wales have to be an optimist, everyone he recruited, everyone who participated had to believe in the possibility of this absurd idea to make it work. This is important - optimists would do well to collaborate amongst themselves, since that is where another key part of the optimist’s edge is to be found.
In fact, we can say that the optimist’s edge individually when combined in collaboration with other optimists’ ideas creates a broader social phenomenon - an optimists’ edge for the collaborative group of optimists.
Pessimists combined in collaboration suffer negative network effects and are collectively less likely to accomplish what anyone of them could try individually. For optimists it is the other way around.
The Wikipedia is made of optimism.
Summing up then - the idea that optimism is a dangerous cognitive bias is rooted in a simplified caricature of optimism as a belief in outcomes, not improvements.
People who dismiss optimism confuse the belief that things are getting better with the belief that all will be well with the world. Optimists gain their edge by starting from an assumption of improvements and iterating from there, and they can boost their efforts by collaborating - enjoying the network effects that lead from the optimist’s edge to the optimists’ edge and building that better world that they can imagine.
This way of seeing the world is a strategic advantage far too few people realize that they have within them.