Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"Speaking Up For An Unpopular Attribute"

A while back I mentioned a book called Quiet by Susan Cain, whose premising thesis is that “… the single most important aspect of personality… is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.” 

In her data-driven dissertation validating the “up-side” of introvertism, Ms. Cain argues persuasively on its behalf, a tough sell in a culture that places a substantially higher value on its opposite.

(Cain references Asian Silicon Valley tech whizzes, who are culturally conditioned to listen and believe that most people “speak nonsense” feeling pressured to sign up for weekend “Assertive Training” classes so that they too can speak “nonsense”, thus increasing their chances of advancing in their careers.)

Although I gleaned illuminating information for Ms. Cain’s book, it is my contention that, first, the most important aspect of personality is not where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum and second, that there is an even less culturally popular attribute in our culture than “introvert”, making that characteristic an even harder sell as positive attribute. 

It is my contention that the most important aspect of personality is where we fall not on the introvert-extrovert spectrum but where we fall on the optimist-pessimist spectrum, and that although introverts get less respect than they deserve, pessimists attacked as infuriating “Captain Bring-Downs” who should be stamped out or forcibly reprogrammed. 

For their own good!   

Thoughts of this character dichotomy crossed my mind when I was thinking with relief recently about not working on Saturday Night Live, focusing specifically on the immense volume of material required, paired with the unstoppable speed with which that material needed to be delivered.

Final Determination:  Not for me.

For a moment, as an exercise, I imagined what an alternate optimist’s perception on that situation might be.  And it hit me that optimists would focus on the fact that, with so much material required so quickly, each individual effort loses its comparative significance, making the stakes for each submission considerably lower.  As in,

“If you miss one bus, there is always another in a few minutes.”

Optimists instinctively understand that with this precipitous schedule, if you lay an egg one week, you can rapidly redeem yourself the next.  With this way of thinking, a “minus” is interpreted as a “plus”, a terrible “Yikes!” situation becoming a liberating “Yay!”

I shall not burden you with a boring litany of optimistically-driven “success stories.”  “Walked on the moon” – blah, blah – “found a miracle cure for”… you know the argument – optimism gets stuff done.  Unfortunately, it is demonstrably harder to mount an rrespectable counter-argument for pessimism, there being an understandable lack of accumulated statistics.


Because nobody keeps track of the shots you don’t take.

How many disasters were happily averted by a timely and considered

“I would think twice before you did that” 

that the “you” in that sentence actually listened to?

Nobody knows.

I was recently given a book entitled “50 Canadians Who Changed The World.”  There is no paralleling book entitled, “50 Canadians Who Kept People From Going Off The Deep End And Regretting It For The Rest Of Their Lives.”

The “negative” is neither provable nor, lacking verifiable evidence, measurable.  Nor is pessimism sexy, the stuff of memorable myths and movies.  Pessimism is the “brakes” – sensible, practical, but generically uninspiring.

“The Man Who Thought The Better Of Climbing Mount Everest”

does not have the makings of an “instant classic.”

The two opposing attributes are only on an equal footing in the “Dueling Aphorisms” arena – “Better safe than sorry.” versus “He who hesitates is lost.”, which by the way is woefully incomplete, the more accurate version being that “He who doesn’t hesitate is just as likely, and in many cases – as with the over-confident driver who refuses to ask directions – even more likely to be lost.”  Getting lost has nothing to do with hesitating.  It has to do with going the wrong way.

“Spoken like a pessimist.”

But I have evidence.

“Pessimists always have evidence.”

So do optimists.  They just don’t listen to it!

“Children!  Please!”


Okay, since pessimists are unable to point to the formidable record of “Pessimistic Accomplishments” – not because there aren’t any but because nobody paid any attention to them when they were happening – we are left, as the only form of evidence, with “Optimistic Decisions That Went Seriously Haywire.” 

First example that comes to mind:

The Donner Party.

DONNER PARTY OPTIMIST:  “Come on, boys!  We are going through the Sierras!”

DONNER PARTY PESSIMIST:  “In the winter?”   

DONNER PARTY OPTIMIST:  “Ah, yes, the always agreeable ‘Voice of Doom.’  If it were up to you, sir, we would never have left Missouri.”

DONNER PARTY PESSIMIST:  “This is demonstrably different.”

DONNER PARTY OPTIMIST:   Wah!  Wah!  Wah!  Take a chance for a change, will you?”

DONNER PARTY PESSIMIST:  “I do take chances.  I just don’t take ridiculous chances.”

DONNER PARTY OPTIMIST:  “Come on, now.  What’s the worst that could happen?”

DONNER PARTY PESSIMIST:  “We get stranded in the mountains and we end up eating each other to stay alive.”

DONNER PARTY OPTIMIST:  “Well if that happens, we know who we’ll eat first!

That story was duly recorded.  They rejected the pessimist, and the only item on the menu was “Each Other.”

Let me be clear here.  I am not saying that everyone should be a pessimist.  Otherwise, we’d be inundated with song lyrics like,

Gray skies
Raining on me…

I am also not saying that pessimists are always right.  Or Columbus would have said,

“That guy may be crazy, but do I really want to risk sailing off the edge of the earth?” 

What I am saying is, when a pessimist expresses an opinion, do not roll your eyes and wait for them to stop talking.


You might miss walking on the moon.

But you might also avoid becoming a Sierra Nevada ice sculpture with missing parts. 

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