The Pangloss Paradigm And What To Do When Given Lemons

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.
Helen Keller

The basis of optimism is sheer terror.
Oscar Wilde

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Is your glass half full or half empty or are you simply annoyed that it’s got water in it instead of a nice cold gin and tonic?

You see, it turns out that optimism is thought to be a strong psychological factor in Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and EQ is considered to be highly indicative of success in leadership. Martin Seligman (professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania) is quoted as having advised MetLife, suffering at the time a drain of their brightest talents, to hire people on the basis of optimism. Now, MetLife must have hired a lot of optimists because they have become so big and successful that the United States’ Financial Stability Oversight Council recently informed the company that it had reached “Stage 3” in the process to determine whether they would be named a non-bank Systemically Important Financial Institution (SIFI), which means they may be classed as a systemically important financial institution whose failure could pose a threat to the nation’s financial stability. It seems like the good folk at the FSOC are very much “glass half empty” types.

I know a lot of optimists. Some of them even have good reason to be optimistic and some of them are optimistic despite having very little about which to be optimistic. They are all people who I would assess to score (with my characteristically unscientific approach) highly on the EQ scale. However, no significant percentage of the optimists I know is an inspirational leader and quite a few are not especially successful on any level. If I look back over my career and think about the various senior managers I’ve worked with and for, I don’t notice any particular propensity to optimism. In fact, in common with most senior managers at C-level, they were too absorbed in the running of the business to show much of anything, excepting frustration.

I have also seen my fair share of pessimists, people for whom Sod’s Law was a source of solace rather than a way of pointing out the absurdities of life. Perhaps a little ironically, scientists from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany have discovered in a study (published by the American Psychological Association earlier this year) that older people beset by pessimism and fear for the future are more likely to live a longer, if slightly grumpy, life. Their study of 40,000 adults over ten years, showed that those with low expectations for a “satisfying future” in fact led healthier lives. Conversely (and maybe a little worryingly for employees of MetLife), people who were “overly optimistic” about the days ahead had a greater risk of disability or death within ten years. The lead author of the study was quoted as saying: “Our findings revealed that being overly optimistic in predicting a better future was associated with a greater risk of disability and death within the following decade”.

The study might be taken as proof of the correctness of Voltaire’s view of the overly-optimistic as embodied by his character from Candide (sub-titled l’Optimisme), Dr Pangloss. The good doctor spends the first section of the novel indoctrinating Candide in optimism in an idyllic paradise which is subsequently torn apart by sex, intrigue, theft, war and natural disasters. Coming through these shocks, Candide becomes disillusioned despite the insistence of Pangloss that everything turned out for the best by necessity. He instead comes to believe that we must “cultivate our garden”. That is (in one reading), we might seek to improve the world through active industrious contribution to it. This philosophy need not necessarily preclude optimism however. My own, personal attempts at non-metaphorical gardening might best be described as a triumph of hope over experience but I retain a quiet sense of optimism that, whilst my lawn will never come to resemble the hallowed sward of the All England Club at Wimbledon we will have a garden full of life and that does play some part, however small, in helping the local bee population thrive.

It is blind optimism that Voltaire satirises in Candide and satire is often the over-used tool of the pessimist, although Voltaire was himself a keen gardener. People however are rarely polarised in extremis one way or the other. Work and workplaces are human constructs and people are the most common cause of frustrations in the world of work. Those arcane and overly-complex procedures and policies that are the bane of your business? A person or group of persons thought those were a good idea and devoted time, energy and money to implementing them. They weren’t a result of some technological automaton, however much computers might play a role in their continuing existence. Otherwise sensible people end up dropping their trousers on the dancefloor at the staff party after one too many drinks from the free bar. They make thoughtless comments about people’s physical appearance or dress sense. They offend, upset and insult unwittingly. They also do so with deliberation. They leave the printer empty of paper, make a mess, interrupt, shout, book meeting rooms and never turn up. They are late to meetings that they have no proper agenda for. They ignore your ideas. They ask for your opinion then forget or ignore it. They preach engagement but conduct a survey instead.

People are messy, complicated, contradictory, contrary and confusing and they create workplaces and working practices in their own image. Being cheerfully optimistic on its own won’t change a thing but retaining a sense of optimism alongside a pragmatic and practical attitude to change and working actively and industriously towards creating better workplaces can be infectious. Catching it is no inoculation and people won’t always thank you if they get it from you. But they’ll feel better for it.

In work, life rarely gives you lemons. But people will. So forget lemonade. Next time someone gives you a lemon cut a couple of decent wedges and drop them into glasses half filled with ice, add a measure of quality gin and a generous splash of tonic. Then sit down with that person and have an open and honest conversation.

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One comment

  1. Interesting post (as ever).

    How about an interpretation that concludes “il faut cultiver SON jardin” i.e. work the patch you’re given, rather than comparing your lot with other people’s? Make the best of what you have. Pointless competition causes a lot of unnecessary angst in the workplace, don’t you think? Contentment might be about setting your own standards.

    If any of your readers haven’t read Candide – Simon’s post might make it sound like a serious philosophical treatise. Don’t be discouraged – you can happily read it as a hilarious romp around Europe. It’s bawdy, witty and full of larger than life characters. The woman with only one buttock is one of my favourites.

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