The engaged skeptic
Last night I read this article by Jane Brody in the New York Times, which was about staying optimistic and the various benefits of a can-do attitude, including health benefits.
At one point in her essay she defines optimism like this:
She wrote, “People can learn to be more optimistic by acting as if they were more optimistic,” which means “being more engaged with and persistent in the pursuit of goals.”
If you behave more optimistically, you will be likely to keep trying instead of giving up after an initial failure. “You might succeed more than you expected,” she wrote. Even if the additional effort is not successful, it can serve as a positive learning experience, suggesting a different way to approach a similar problem the next time.
But in another part of her essay it has been transformed:
Avoid negative self-talk. Instead of focusing on prospects of failure, dwell on the positive aspects of a situation.
In college, I would approach every exam, even those I had barely studied for, with the thought that I was going to do well. Time after time, this turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So which is it? Does being optimistic mean I’ll be more engaged with an persistent in the pursuit of goals, or does it mean I’ll barely study for an exam and then talk myself into thinking I’ll do well? Because those two ways sound pretty different, if not downright opposite. And who wants to be around a lazy optimist?
I don’t want to quibble, but I think there’s a common and important conflation of the two ideas of engagement and naivety, and I’d like to separate them.
It’s possible, and very possibly more interesting, to have a can-do attitude but not be optimistic, or in other words to be an engaged skeptic.
Just because I work hard and devote myself to something doesn’t mean I’ve fooled myself into thinking it will be a piece of cake. But it does mean I don’t think it’s impossible, and it will only work if I try to make it work. It’s not likely to work but it’s worth trying. Many very hard and very worthwhile things are like that.
Finally, when Brody says “Focus on situations that you can control, and forget those you can’t”, I’d argue that’s often code for letting yourself off too easy.
I claim that, as an engaged skeptic, you shouldn’t really forget anything, because you should figure out how you can maybe affect it after all, or in some small way, or the system it lives in, even if it’s in the future, and even if the chances are it won’t work.