Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Choosing Optimism

The writer Douglas Coupland, coiner of the phrase GenX, is an ominous kind of guy. In a reverse mirror image, he’s calling himself a “radical pessimist” against my school of “radical optimism.”

By radical I’m not just meaning extreme, but consciously applied, as per the Rules for Radicals classic by late veteran activist Saul Alinsky. Coupland’s school of radical pessimism has led him to create “A Radical Pessimist’s Guide to the Next 10 Years” which has just appeared in the Globe & Mail, and true to form, offers a bleak depiction of the coming decade.

Of the 45 “tips for survival in a messed-up future”, the first one is to recognize that “it’s going to get worse”; the last is that “we will accept the obvious truth that we brought this upon ourselves.” In between are a bunch of glass-half-empty insights and predictions such as “You're going to miss the 1990s more than you ever thought” (I don’t think so), “Hooking up will become ever more mechanical and binary” (I’m still cheering for romance), and “Dreams will get better” (this I can vote for).

Most of us are well aware that the future will be VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). But it’s easy to make that same assessment from the point of view of the optimist. I see the future as being vibrant, unreal, crazy, and astounding. When I think about the possibilities of the future, it raises my heart rate with excitement.

Ultimately, however, optimism is a choice. In my experience, it’s the correct choice. At numerous points throughout history, it was easy to make gloomy predictions about the future. Whether it was World War II, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, or the aftermath of 9/11.

And yet, time and again, we find ways of banding together, harnessing our creativity, and not just persevering but thriving. The challenges of the future will no doubt be novel, but they won’t be insurmountable. Whether it’s breakneck technological change, environmental sustainability, or economic turnarounds, these are issues that need to be met with radical optimism and the conviction that Nothing is Impossible.