We have probably heard the saying before.
Please bear with me though, as I colour it in a bit, to bring out some details that are often overlooked.
Two thirsty men, on two deserted islands, have been searching for water and each come across a drinking glass. Upon inspection, they find that the glass has some water in it but only up to the halfway point.
One man, the optimist, says “Oh phew, the glass is half full.”
The other, the pessimist, says “Aw shucks, the glass is half empty.”
For our purposes, let’s assume that both these men are practical. By “practical” I mean that both these men try to perceive reality accurately and act sensibly based on that perception.
They have both succeeded at the first step, because the glass is both half full and half empty at the same time. So their perception of reality is accurate.
However, if all other things are equal, their futures will be very different. Because their views of the future will be very different.
The practical optimist says, “Thank God I have found this bit of water. It means there is probably more out there. This sip of water will give me enough energy to keep searching for it, At least for another 6 hours before I pass out. With any luck in that time I will be able to find a more substantial source of water to properly satisfy my thirst.”
The practical pessimist on the other hand, says “After all my searching, all I have found is this small bit of water. That doesn’t sound promising about my chances of finding any more water. I will need to conserve this water to make it last. If I sit here and use as little energy as possible, I may last a whole day before passing out from thirst.”
These are both sensible reactions based on their perceptions.
In an area full of abundant potential, the sensible thing is to seek out and work to build that potential.
In an area of scarcity, the sensible thing to do is conserve what we have.
So, what will their futures look like?
(Full disclosure, I myself have chosen the path of the optimist)
Well, if the only source of water is a fresh flowing stream just 2 hours away, then the optimist will survive and thrive, while the pessimist will wait and die.
But, if there is no source of water within 10 hours of searching in any direction. Then the optimists search is futile and he will die searching.
And, what if, unknown to both of them, there is a heavy rainstorm coming in another 12 hours. The optimist will be long dead, but the pessimist will be rewarded for conserving resources, with more water than he could possibly drink.
So, assuming our magic hasn’t reached the level of earth-sensing (to detect where the nearest river is) or weather wizardry (to detect oncoming storms) then, as far as we know, both people probably have a roughly equal chance of survival (or equal chance of dying). So both points of view could be equally useful.
Except, there is one rule that affects the result.
The rule of Entropy.
Entropy is a concept in physics. The simplified version of says something like “Everything will continue to break down, unless energy is put in to build it up.”
If we leave a large house unattended long enough, it will eventually rearrange itself into a medium sized pile of stones and rubble.
However, no matter how long we leave a medium sized pile of stones and rubble, it will never rearrange itself into a large house.
How does this affect the optimist and the pessimist? Well, the pessimist is choosing to do less, to wait and see what the future rearranges itself into for him. While the optimist is choosing to do more, to try the best within their power to rearrange the future into something better. As such, the optimist has a better chance of experiencing a positive future than the pessimist does.
If a practical optimist is hoping for a stream, he will spend his half glass of water searching to make that hope a reality.
If a practical optimist is hoping for rain, he will spend his half glass of water building barrels to catch as much rain as possible when it comes.
In the end, their actions carry the potential to make things better for them and for those around them.
Whereas, to the practical pessimist, who sees and is focused on the lack of water, the most sensible choice is to hoard what they have, for as long as possible, until it all runs out and they are proven right.
Well, that is all a very nice, fluffy story but…, Where is the power?
That’s why we are here after all.
Well, there is actually a key piece of information that turns this story into something even more useful.
It’s the fact that being an optimist, or being a pessimist, is not an unchangeable part of our identity!
Our optimism or pessimism is based on our world view (literally “How we view the world”).
Our worldview is something that we have slowly, and mostly unconsciously, built up over the course of our lifetime. An internal map we have, that is our interpretation of how the world is and how the world works.
To use some clichéd examples, one person’s world view may contain the belief that “Everyone always acts selfishly” or another person’s world view may contain the belief that “Love conquers all”. The interesting thing is, to the owner of the worldview, the view is not something inside them, it is something outside them. A part of the world.
If we say to the first person, “Isn’t it a bit depressing to believe that everyone always acts selfishly?” They are likely to answer “Yes it is depressing. Especially because it is true!”
Or if we say to the second person “Isn’t it a bit childish to believe that love conquers all?” they may say something like “What is childish about seeing the truth?” .
Like Dorothy and her friends, we are all people wearing green glasses and believing the world is made of Emerald.
The place of power is in knowing that, while our worldview was formed by our past, it is maintained by our present, and we can choose to refine and even rebuild it.
We cannot, and should not, deny our feelings or opinions. However, we can acknowledge that those feelings and opinions are based on assumptions and beliefs we may not even be fully aware that we have. By attempting to understand those beliefs, we can understand and influence more about ourselves.
What are the ‘obvious’ beliefs we have that are currently leading us to those feelings and opinions?
Do we actually agree with the source of those beliefs? Do we agree with the actions those beliefs lead us to?
Is there a path to gently challenging those beliefs and encouraging growth?
This is spirit bending.
It is what psychotherapists do. They slowly and carefully help us realise what our worldview is and carefully guide us in changing it in positive ways
We will discuss more on spirit bending in some of our future posts.
Our worldview is something that our psyche has built over decades to deal with the unique challenges of our life. Both external challenges and internal ones.
It is much more important to spend time digging into, and understanding, the root reasons of our worldview, than it is to make any quick changes that we believe might help. The simple act of understanding ourselves, will give us more power over our own life.
Like breaking walls inside a house we are redesigning. If we break down the wrong wall (without putting extra support in place), the roof and the whole house may come crashing down.
So handle with care
For Further Study
The Road Less Traveled by Scott Peck (Book)
How to choose a job that suits you by Tim Urban (Blog)
And finally, another interesting pessimist/optimist story:
An optimist and a pessimist are stuck adrift on a lifeboat, the last two survivors of a sinking ship.
The optimist keeps saying “Phew! We survived. I’m sure we will be rescued any moment now.”
The pessimist keeps saying “Oh no, we are stick in the middle of the ocean, we are doomed!”
In the end, even if the pessimist turns out to be right, the optimist would have had a much better time. 🙂