Optimism and Pessimism: The American Dream and The Russian Nightmare

In The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond describes one of the most striking features of Papua New Guinean hunter-gatherers: they are paranoid.

While Americans tend to think of paranoia as a sign of a diseased mind, Diamond comes to realize that this paranoia is actually incredibly constructive. If you’re a hunter-gatherer, you don’t have access to good medical care. If you break your leg, you’re probably dead. If you have a cut or a bee sting that gets infected, there are no antibiotics and you’re probably dead. And that’s not to mention all the dangers in the jungle for which modern medicine can’t do anything.

You could be sleeping and a tree could fall on you. Dead.

You could run into a hostile tribe. Dead.

Snakes and spiders. Dead.

This is the kind of environment in which humans evolved. We lived. We died. And the people still left tried not to repeat those mistakes.

If you haven’t seen the Edge of Tomorrow, it’s excellent. Tom Cruise’s experience is the experience of human evolution in one man.

Evolution works at every level. It works on our beliefs, our values, our genes and the endless interactions between them. And so, over time we evolved different ways of thinking. We have the capacity to imagine everything that COULD go wrong (pessimism) and the capacity to believe that everything will work out for the best (optimism). Both perspectives are useful. Pessimism allows us to IMAGINE threats and optimism gives us the confidence that we can figure out ways to survive and thrive in spite of them.

However, some environments have evolved cultures that massively overfavor optimism and some have evolved cultures that massively overfavor pessimism. Take a listen to Michael Malice (who emigrated from Russia) talking about his shock at how his much more culturally American friend, John Durant, reacted to hearing a knock at the door.

Contained within that tiny clip is a goldmine of information about how the culture you grew up in drives your thinking. Michael thinks his reaction is perfectly normal. And he would continue to think that if he never left Russia. Everyone else would react in the same way and it would seem like that was just what people do. But Michael lives in America and so he is surrounded by people like John with very different cultural assumptions. Russia has long been a low trust environment. America, on the other hand, has long been a land of optimists.

This little example also reveals why optimism and pessimism aren’t better or worse. They’re appropriate to the environment or not. Place the American optimist in Russia and he will get screwed again and again. Place the Russian pessimist and his paranoia will cause him to assume the worst in what can easily become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Russian pessimism and American optimism both made sense traditionally. 

As Martin Seligman reports in Authentic Happiness, optimists do better on almost every criteria. They’re happier, more productive and have more successful marriages. As Seligman explains, “Thus, pessimists are losers on many fronts. But there is one glaring exception; pessimists do better at law.” Culture isn’t just about the ethnic or national group you grow up in. It’s also the culture of your job. So, why are lawyers so pessimistic? Because that’s their job. It’s a lawyer’s job to be paranoid. The more they can imagine every conceivable threat the more they can design contracts so watertight that no one can exploit any possible loopholes.

There are, however, costs to this rampant pessimism for lawyers. Even though lawyers are the highest-paid professionals in America, Seligman explains that their pessimism takes a massive toll:

“When adjusted for sociodemo-graphics, lawyers topped the list, suffering from depression at a rate 3.6 times higher than employed persons generally. Lawyers also suffer from alcoholism and illegal drug use at rates far higher than nonlawyers. The divorce rate among lawyers, especially women, also appears to be higher than the divorce rate among other professionals. Thus, by any measure, lawyers embody the paradox of money losing its hold: they are the best-paid profession, and yet they are disproportionately unhappy and unhealthy.”

If substance abuse problems and depression sound distinctly Russian, well they are. Look at this graphic from the World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health. You don’t want to be the purple country. Purple means you have a serious alcohol problem. Russia is the purple country.

Russia isn’t trying to be pessimistic. It thinks it’s being realistic. That’s what naive realism causes you to do it. It causes you to confuse your feeeeeeelings about the world for reality.

While pessimism makes you hyper alive to threats, optimism makes you utterly oblivious to them. Let’s take a look at a culture that blindly favors optimism. Americans have for centuries been famous for their optimism. There’s a can-do attitude. There’s a faith that everything can work out. We just have to believe in ourselves and with hard work anything is possible. That is the American Dream. You needed that kind of delusional optimism to be the guy or gal in your village who moved across the world to a country you’d never been to. While human immigrants dreamed of streets paved with gold, mice immigrants in the animated classic An American Tail dreamed of streets paved with cheese.

However, all too often American optimism turns into a foreign policy nightmare. The Bay of Pigs. Vietnam. The War on Terror. The list goes on. America feeeeeeeels optimistic about its chances of achieving some grand military victory but then reality bites. You really shouldn’t always look on the bright side of life.

In practice, optimism and pessimism evolved to serve two totally different functions. Pessimism was for finding problems before they occurred. Optimism was for having the conviction that you could succeed. There’s a time and place for each. Wisdom lies in knowing the difference between the two mindsets and when each is the right tool for the job. In this environment, we need to both IMAGINE every possible threat with pessimism and then use optimism to have the CONFIDENCE to figure out a plan to design around it. That’s why neither blind American optimism nor blind Russian pessimism work anymore. So, why would any human go along with either outlook as “true.”

Yes, Patrick Bateman, people want to fit in. Humans are tribal. We crave belonging and will do seriously screwed up shit to ourselves and others to fit in. That’s part of why we’re building Mixed Mental Arts. Having no tribe is really tough. I’ve tried it. In practice, it’s way easier to switch tribes. If you want to join us, you’re more than welcome whatever your culture of origin is. As you figure out what makes sense in this new environment of the constantly evolving global village, you’ll inspire others to blindly copy your success. By leaving your culture to work on yourself, you are actually helping the people you care about.

For more on optimism and pessimism, you can listen to me discussing these mindsets with Joe Rogan.

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

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