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The engaged skeptic

May 23, 2012

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.

Categories: rant
  1. May 23, 2012 at 8:29 am

    Disclaimer – first, I agree with you that it sounds like (although I didn’t read the full article) a fluff piece.

    So many people won’t engage in something if it looks ‘hard,’ won’t guarantee a payoff, etc. etc. That’s not me and doesn’t sound like you either!

    In fact, I tend to swing the other direction entirely, due to some heavy influence from my Father. The more someone told him it couldn’t be done, the more juice it gave him to ‘show those bastards.’ It’s what motivated him often and I see it in myself, too.

    In our evolution toward ‘if it ain’t an app, it ain’t important’ world, I’m faced daily with people staying on the couch because they’ve speculated – mostly with too little data, enthusiasm or laziness – why bother? Someone else will probably do it.

    Where’s even the sniff of curiosity anymore? 😦


  2. JSE
    May 23, 2012 at 9:02 am

    I read the thing about the exam as saying “Work hard on the exam problems, even if you feel you’re not as well-prepared as others; you never know what might happen if you leave open the possibility that you might succeed.” Which does fit the first excerpt pretty well.

    I often give people the advice, “Make the choice you would make if you had high self-esteem.”


  3. Al
    May 23, 2012 at 10:18 am

    For a more scholarly & nuanced approach on the subject of Optimism see:


  4. May 23, 2012 at 10:41 am

    The engaged skeptic is more likely to see reality, accurately evaluate behaviors, learn and grow than Brody’s optimist. Brody’s optimist is more likely to put forth Steve Jobs-type dreams and make them realities. There’s a need for both types and they should probably seek out each other.

    Whether or not you are prepared for an exam, you want to walk in and correctly answer every question that you know. Brody’s point seemed to be that if you worry too much about being unprepared, you’ll miss questions that you know and poor performance will be self-fulfilling. I’d agree. However, if you convince yourself that you going to do well, look at the test and realize that you aren’t going to do well, this cognitive dissonance leads to irrationality that causes you to miss questions that you know in addition to those you don’t. The optimist ends up under performing just like the pessimist.

    The engaged skeptic will separate the preparation, the knowledge, and the exam and realize:

    If I didn’t prepare, I didn’t get the knowledge I could have, regardless of my performance on the exam. The exam may or may not measure the knowledge I could have gained through preparation. I have no prior expectations of exam performance except that I expect to correctly respond to every question that I know, whether that’s 20% or 80%. I don’t let unrealized prior expectations of success or failure distract me from this task. If I get my exam back and I’ve done well despite my lack of effort, I can conclude that the exam was not sufficiently challenging – and perhaps need to seek greater challenges.

    Brody doesn’t seem to think like that. I’m not sure about the health implications. Those rare occasions when optimists are smacked in the face by reality can lead to some Jobs-like unhealthy behaviors.


  5. May 23, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    On the exam issue, what’s the opposite?

    “I didn’t study for this, I am going to fail.” pretty much guarantees it right? Because you’re psyching yourself up for failure and its harder to think more clearly. Maybe there’s stuff in there you know very well, but if you’re not calm and collected, you could miss it.

    And as for her final statement, you really do have to let go of things you can’t change. If you don’t it leads to frustration and stress. Its like trying to change a person, you can’t, so why waste the time trying?


  6. Deborah gieringer
    May 23, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    I never bought that line about “expecting to fail”–it just didn’t fit with my experience. As far i could tell, i often did quite well when I was expecting the opposite–and vice versa. I think the psychology varies a lot with individuals and depends on a lot of factors. In my case, i tended to relax when i thought I was going to do poorly on a test,and this relaxation helped me to focus and really try. So, assuming i had actually prepared for the test, i did well. When i entered a test with confidence, i tended to get sloppy, make careless mistakes.

    That said, “engaged skeptic” seems to take a stance prematurely with the assumption “it’s not likely to work.” It just seems unnecessary to begin that way, like adding an extra gateway to the problem, though maybe you’re saying this is your natural starting point by disposition.

    As for “focus on things you can control”– i could take that to mean “choose your battles” and use the RESOURCES you have control over … even if your resources are at this moment small, and the problem is colossal, well, go ahead and tackle it. Use what you have, and if necessary, use eons as your time frame for its effect.


  7. July 1, 2012 at 12:04 pm

    It is my optimism, a belief that it is at least sometimes possible to solve problems, that drives me to call attention to problems. I feel no need to put on a game-show-host smile and pretend everything is perfect.


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