What is Objective Optimism?

Estimated reading time 53 mins.

Note: I am not a philosopher or psychologist nor any kind of expert in either field. But that doesn’t disqualify the following hypothesis as haphazard or necessarily invalid. I say simply that it corresponds with my experience, organizing without contradiction the successes and failures I’ve observed in other people and in my own life. Each aspect of my life improves to the extent I apply this framework, and it falters to the extent I stray from it.

In spite of all that, please consider the following a hypothesis and not a definitive proclamation. The method itself demands that I never cease to revise and reorganize my ideas into clearer and more precise concepts as I take on challenges from others (and myself) and as I live and learn. But I’ve been living and learning for a long while, and in this first “essay,” it is the most comprehensive formulation I can make to date.

Optimism’s got a bad rap. It is associated with ignorance, naivety, and immaturity. A Morgan Housel article does well to highlight a few reasons why pessimism is sexy, but John Stuart Mill in any case identified the tendency over 150 years ago:

“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs while others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”

An optimist is an adorable but pitiful child who expects the best in the world until such a sage elder (or harsh reality) snaps them out of their foolish, idealistic notions and expectations. The child is an adult now, properly cynical and “realistic.”

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Matthew McConaughey thinks it’d be a lot cooler if you were selfish

Estimated reading time 27 mins.

“You’re not an Ayn Rand guy, are you?”

“Or are you?” Larry King adds quickly, allaying the tone of contempt and derision palpable in his first accusatory question.

Matthew McConaughey, his guest on Larry King Now, looking amused though slightly taken aback at the perceivable rancor, answers with a disarming smile, “I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

This brief exchange followed Larry’s reading of a quote from Matthew, in which he had said:

“I’ve got much more selfish. I’m a fan of the word ‘selfish.’ I am less concerned with what people think of me. I’m not worried about how I’m perceived. ‘Selfish’ has always gotten a bad rap. You should do for you.”

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Optimism is realism: Where’s your focus?

Estimated reading time 11 mins.

Part of the satisfaction I get from my work as the teacher of a Korean university English conversation class is sharing and discussing ideas I care about with young people. For some material, I often take an article, talk, or podcast I like and present it to students in the clearest way they can consume it, given their English proficiency levels and other factors. We might simply read the article or, more often, I might create a Prezi presentation and give a mini-lecture summarizing the material in understandable terms at an appropriate pace before we discuss the ideas.

Preparing one such lesson, I recently re-listened to a Human Flourishing Podcast episode titled, “Cultivating Appreciation.” In it, host Alex Epstein recounts his experiences with a trolley and Uber driver, respectively, and was struck at how both expressed through action and in words great joy and appreciation for their work and the environments in which they get to perform it. Alex goes on to say that he was struck by this mental approach, highlighting how what they chose to focus on shaped their experience of it. There are further valuable points made in the episode, but for this article, I only intend to piggyback on it up to here.

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There’s always someone cooler than you

Estimated reading time 16 mins.

The title may be familiar to some as the 2003 Ben Folds song it is. As a new experiment in my English conversation class this upcoming semester, I’m going to have students discuss these lyrics, while of course highlighting the lessons I take from it myself. As in many Ben Folds songs, the lyrics colorfully present a strong message, and I thought it would be a fun way to introduce a theme for discussion I think will prove relevant to them.

While comparing against others is a personal and social problem in Western countries, expressed (in one aspect) in the idiom “Keeping up with the Joneses,” Korea has its own distinct comparison culture. Korea is a hyper-modern economy that moves at warp speed. The uber-competitive education system centers all around scores and rankings based thereupon. And when they’re done with that, most feel enormous pressure at “getting a good job,” which means—if not a “doctor, lawyer, or judge”—at one of the bigger companies (e.g. Samsung, LG, Hyundai, etc.). Anyone can do the math to see that achieving this measure of “success” is not going to be a reality for almost everyone, so the stress is tremendous.

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