The Power of Pessimism

“Well a teacher of mine once told me

Life is just a list of disappointments and defeats,

And you can only do your best

I said ‘Well that’s a f***in’ cop out

You’re just washed up and you’re tired

And when I get to your age, well,

I won’t be such a coward’.

But these days I sit alone,

Known to shout at my TV.

And punk rock did not live up

to what I hoped that it would be

And all the things that I believed

With all my heart when I was young

are just coaster for beers and

clean surfaces for drugs”

This is a song I think about a lot more than I probably should. It is “Photosynthesize” by Frank Turner. The lyrics bounce through my head often enough to wonder about some specific questions.

Where does cynicism and pessimism come from?

There is a line by George Carlin that goes “Behind every cynic is a disappointed idealist.”

As I scroll through social media, I see a lot of miserable people plastering a smile on their face. You see them post inspirational quotes and stock images of beaches at sunset and you wonder how much of it is true and how much of it was just whatever they had scheduled in Hootsuite.

Yeah, I probably lean toward the cynical side of the equation.

You see, being in sales as an introvert has given me a specific bulls*** meter. I hear the persuasion techniques and my meter goes haywire at the faux smiles. I skate past small talk and have learned to be very comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. I have had “networking” calls that have become quasi-therapy sessions where I try to coach people through their issues and get them past their more glaring hang-ups. I have seen them struggle with alcohol, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, burnout, anxiety, and anything else you can think of.

A lot of this article stems from a recent documentary that I watched called “The Vow“. It was an HBO documentary on the ESP/NXIVM cult from upstate New York. As I was watching it, I kept seeing the tactics. I started seeing how heavily it relied on Nuero-Linguistic Programing (NLP) techniques I have studied.

While watching the documentary, a key thing kept popping up. Whenever someone said something negative about NXIVM, the cult reframed the negative thought as something wrong with the individual, not the organization. It became this environment where the individual was always wrong and the leaders of the cult were nearly infallible.

The worst part was how common this happens on social media. There is this never-ending drumbeat of “be positive”.

Do not get me wrong. Positivity is a wonderful thing. But what if it is unwarranted?

When someone is struggling with depression, they see negative things. Their very perception of reality is skewed. They are wearing sunglasses and are completely unable to see the positive. They cannot see the full vibrancy of the world because they have this filter that strains out the positive and leaves the negative.

But what about positivity? What if there is just a filter there too? Some rose-colored glasses that prevent the negative from getting in. Why do we fight so hard against one delusion and not another?

I recall this joke by Ron White where he talks about an elderly man who planned to chain himself to a tree in a hurricane because he wanted to show how strong he was. Ron’s response was that the issue is not that the wind is blowing, but what the wind is blowing.

See the elderly man was positive, but still delusional to the point of self-harm. Yet we keep cheering for these Little Engines That Can’t and watch the hillside become polluted with dead locomotives who had an engine that simply couldn’t cut it.

I don’t want people to give up on their dreams, but there comes a point when you have to look around and admit what you are doing is not working. The annals of history are filled with failed companies that thought they could white knuckle it through without ever second guessing their strategy. They chanted “I think I can” over and over again until the engine blew a gasket and their dream was melted for slag.

Maybe I am just a cynic, but what I want is to give you that voice that always looks over your shoulder, wondering how you can make things more efficient and less likely to fail. That moment of doubt may be the thing that keeps you, your family, and your business from becoming the next cautionary tale told to business students.

Be a cynic.

Figure out how something will fail.

Succeed anyway.

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