New Perspectives: Pragmatic Optimism

I know what you’re thinking. Ah, right. Another rant from someone who thinks combining two established ideas is grounds for writing an article and pretending they’re an expert on a subject. Like we haven’t been through THAT before.

Don’t worry, this ain’t that. It’s not me passing myself off as an “expert”. It’s an attempt to put into words a way of life that I’ve seen in the lives of many people I've known, learned from, and learned of. An idea I’ve been trying to apply to my life, and one that I’m sharing with you, in the hopes that it makes as much of a difference in your life as it’s making in mine. A new perspective, if you’d call it that.

To begin, we have to start where many studies of self development and perspective start: with Stoicism.

Stoicism, born out of ancient Greece and progressed by many thinkers (Zeno, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca to name a few) can be defined as the ultimate goal of one’s living to be in harmony with “the divine reason” (we’ll call it fate); to accept the outcomes of life in its totality. Good, bad, unfortunate and unexpected. It means to accept (and appreciate) pleasure when it blesses your life, and pain when it knocks on your door (anyone know the latin phrase “Amor Fati”?), without letting them dictate your life. To be unphased by their coming and going.

This can seem fairly apathetic. Total acceptance? Do you even like fun things? Do you hate puppies? The f**k is wrong with you?

But that’s a simplistic way of looking at things. Apathy means a lack of care about anything in life, specifically the hardships that we endure. It’s genuinely not caring about whatever is going on around you. Stoicism is different. It calls for us to embrace and endure the realities of life. Pain, hardship, and challenges will no doubt flood our lives (like their opposites, pleasure and enjoyment). Stoicism calls on us to face them, endure them without complaint of fate (circumstance, destiny, whatever you’d like to call it), and weather the storm. To not be attached to them.

I promise, this will all be relevant soon.

One of the cornerstones of Stoic thought is the belief that: “we are not always in control of what happens to us, but we are in control of how we respond to what happens to us.” In this small space of action and reaction, what we can control is how we interpret circumstances. Or, in Dr. Victor Frankl’s words (who survived the Holocaust and nazi concentration camps):

“No one can take away my freedom to choose how I will react.”

So I know what you’re thinking: “cool Andrew, you’re writing about Stoicism. Still not relevant.”

Let’s bring it back then. Pragmatic Optimism. What’s that?

We can define Pragmatism as having a practical and realistic look at life: what is actually happening, what the circumstances really are, and what can and cannot work, using as much logic as possible. The perspective focuses on the practical qualities of a possible action, or what is most likely to work. An example of this is Lyndon B. Johnson’s first civil rights bill. Instead of pushing for full civil rights (which he realized would never pass) he pushed a smaller one to achieve the right to vote. That’s it. Just the right to vote. But Johnson knew that one small victory of voting rights would get the ball rolling to achieve more civil rights in the coming years.

Optimism on the other hand, argues that one should look at life with hopefulness and confidence about the future, or that good will be the outcome. Optimists are viewed as people who believe the “grass is greener on the other side”, or that things will, inevitably, get better. The paper will be marked well, it won’t be THAT cold out, or you’ll fall asleep on time. Or that people will be inherently good and do good things.

Pragmatism and optimism can often seem at odds, as one calls for a brutally realistic look on life (which can be disheartening), and the other seeming to “look at life through rose coloured glasses”. But after digging deeper you can see how the two can find common ground to combine a realistic look on life with the ability to be positive. So how’s that work?

Using the stoic perspectives spoken of before, we can define Pragmatic Optimism as seeing and accepting the realities of life, and choosing to view and frame them in a way that is beneficial and actionable. To figure out what you can do in any given situation.

(An example of this in action is former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink’s famous “good” video)

If your car breaks down on the side of the road, you can’t just ignore it till it goes away (which it won’t, cause it’s broken and can’t go anywhere). But you can see this as an opportunity to practice patience, critical decision-making, and time to reflect as you wait for the tow truck to come and save your sorry ass.

Another example of this is Col. Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. When he decided he wanted to be an astronaut, Canada had no Astronaut Program. His chances of ever becoming an astronaut were nonexistent. But he did know that many of the American or Russian astronauts were fighter pilots, so he knew where to atleast start. And he accepted that he may never become an an Astronaut, but if he kept climbing towards it he’d either reach it or land somewhere along the way doing something he enjoyed.

So that’s Pragmatic Optimism. And you know what the great thing about this perspective is? It doesn’t require much to apply. No formal education, 4 year degrees, or months long excursions and retreats. Just the willingness to look at things different, and the willingness to practice this in your every day life.

This is a perspective, and perspectives are applied to your life.

Start looking at things differently. View life’s difficulties as opportunities to toughen your skin, to learn new skills, to grow as a person. View the good moments in your life as, like difficult ones, fleeting and impermanent, but to be enjoyed to their fullest and not anxiously held onto. To take the chaos of a busy schedule and look at it as something for your benefit. To take the peaceful moments and appreciate them while they last. To look at life how it is, and then ask “what can I do?”

Authors who influenced this article:

  • Victor Frankl
  • Jocko Willink
  • Seneca The Younger
  • Ryan Holiday

I want to add a small section to say that truly traumatizing experiences in life aren’t fixed by simply adopting a new perspective, and this article does not take precedent over the work of counselors and therapists who can help you if you’re facing a crisis. If you’re going through a tough time, please see someone. If you can’t, you can definitely find some resources for free online to get started. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy are great places to start.

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