Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Optimism, Pessimism and Magical Thinking

Do you know a friend who subscribes to the belief that their thoughts magically create their reality?  Likely you know many such people, or would if you paid more attention.

This is the sort of friend I mean: say they were with you at the foot of a mountain you were intending to climb together.  This person would react to your checking of ropes, gear and weather conditions as if you were cursing the hopes of your joint expedition. They would avoid any thought about the possibility that a rope could break because having that thought might cause the rope to break.  Having ruled out such negative thoughts, these people prepare by visualizing themselves on top of the mountain, and involving themselves in excited conversation about that with other optimists.  The try mightily to 'make real' now the future feeling they almost certainly believe they will have as they later survey the roof of world, at their feet - and avoid like contagion any thought of failure.

Never climb a mountain with someone who has no fear.

Fill the rest of that mountain climbing story in yourselves...I'm going to assume you're wise enough not to need my help considering the direct relationship between such thinking and the probability of yet another climbing death, gentle reader.

Now let's look at the opposite side of this coin.  The friend who miserably or otherwise thinks of all the reasons any venture will not succeed, and so convinces themselves never to venture anything if at all possible.  This person would be back at home in the city while you checked your ropes for the climbing day ahead!

So, is there no magical power of thoughts by themselves?  I think of the
ridiculous image
of 'psychics' engaged in (wasteful) strenuous effort to move objects with their minds.  Bloody hell!  Reach out and move that thing.  The human body and mind are quite miracle enough. This question about pure thought's ability to cause effects by itself is quite irrelevant for those of us who want to climb mountains of whatever kind.  

So yes, before you start your day, go ahead and richly visualize the future success you want to enjoy, in every detail. Because it is self-motivating, and it is so much easier to determine how to do something if you can precisely define it in any given human or empirical dimension. Admit also the possibility of failure...don't superstitiously fear that such an admission will magically ensure that result. Look risks in the face, and develop risk management strategies and back-up plans.  Mindful of your immediate environment and next task, clear about where you want to go and how you plan to get there, alert to risks and opportunities as they present themselves, succeed one step at a time toward your goal.

Hmm. I like that one could read "succeed" as I wrote above using either one of these two definitions of "To Succeed":
  • to follow in order
  • to accomplish what is attempted or intended

Happy Climbing!


    1 comment:

    Neil LaChapelle said...

    Interesting post! It makes me reflect on the virtue of courage. Courage calls us to walk just this fine line - pursuing the goal while acknowledging the risk.

    It involves doing neither of the two 'escapes' you mention - the escapes of either denying the risks and only visualizing the goal (over-optimism), or denying the goal and only visualizing the risks (over-pessimism).

    Which leads me to another interesting thought. Are "functional" optimism and "functional" pessimism roughly equivalent (except perhaps for emotional tone)?

    Maybe not, maybe there's a different in emphasis, but clearly functional optimists/pessimists can dialogue together, neither discounting what the other says entirely, each recalibrating their own mental models based on each others' perspectives, until they arrive at a certain amount of overlap in their assessment of the risks and benefits of something - enough of an overal to allow them to collaborate on that task...