Cynical Optimism

Geraldine sometimes tries to describe my outlook on life as cynical optimism. I think that’s a fair assessment.

I generally believe that humans will do a lot of stupid, selfish, hurtful, tragic things to each other and themselves. I see this as exacerbated by behavioral and evolutionary psychology, which is poorly understood and even more poorly compensated for on an individual basis. There are so many poor decisions I’ve made personally merely because I’ve been hungry. And then there’s the bevvy of irrational motivations I have around sunk costs (“we’ve already put so much effort into X, we should give X a little more time/money/energy/leeway”) or biased by expectation (I hoped for Y, but got Z, and thus am disappointed, even though Z is great) or affected by other behavioral quirks of the human mind. It seems obvious that others make poor decisions on a regular basis, causing all sorts of pain and strife.

But, in the long term view, humanity’s been doing remarkably well. It’s hard for anyone to argue that the citizens of the world, on average, are worse off today than they were 100 years ago, or that, in 1912 (WWI excluded), humanity was worse off that 100 years prior, and so on. We most certainly have ebbs and flows. Specific groups of people and specific regions have better and worse decades or even centuries, but the hallmark of the past 2,000 years has been progress toward a more excellent life for the majority of our race. We’ve had a massive, observable decline in violence. And an equally statistically observable decline in poverty.

(via Pinker’s TED talk)

There will be those in every age who argue that we’ve past the climax and that things were slightly better in the recent past. According to these cynical cynics, this portends long-term worsening of the human condition (usually unless their particular political/sociological/cultural/religious values are adhered to immediately). Rational thinkers in most ages don’t buy into this, and I don’t buy into it today.

I liked Matt Ridley’s recent piece in Wired- Apocalypse Not: Why You Shouldn’t Worry About the End of Times. It’s not perfect, and it glosses over some serious challenges dismissively, but it makes the inarguable point that history has proven the cynical cynics wrong time and again and that even in humanity’s worst hours, we manage to recover and evolve into something better.

This mode of thinking is something I see in miniature throughout my personal life and the eocsystems I touch. The worlds of SEO or marketing or technology or startup funding may have their challenges (the 2001 bubble, the RIP good times memo, the Florida update, etc), but they always recover and progress, stronger than ever. In an even tinier microcosm, SEOmoz has represented this lifecycle itself several times. We came back from the precipice of near-collapse several times in our early history, and we’ve had rough quarters in the intervening years, but given enough time, the trajectory looks very positive.

Mr. Ridley ended his piece with:

Humanity is a fast-moving target. We will combat our ecological threats in the future by innovating to meet them as they arise, not through the mass fear stoked by worst-case scenarios.

That broadly sums up my feelings about nearly all of life – my marriage, my health, the company I helped build, the worlds of software and marketing, and humanity’s future. The best is yet to come, but we might need to pass through some rough times to get there.