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Screw Optimism and screw “sanity”
« on: September 30, 2017, 01:26:59 AM »

Screw Optimism and screw “sanity”
2017 September 29
by Ian Welsh

An older post, reborn.

I recently stumbled across a book on the link between leadership and what we call madness.  From the Amazon review:

    Take realism, for instance: study after study has shown that those suffering depression are better than “normal” people at assessing current threats and predicting future outcomes. Looking at Lincoln and Churchill among others, Ghaemi shows how depressive realism helped these men tackle challenges both personal and national. Or consider creativity, a quality psychiatrists have studied extensively in relation to bipolar disorder. A First-Rate Madness shows how mania inspired General Sherman and Ted Turner to design and execute their most creative-and successful-strategies.

    Ghaemi’s thesis is both robust and expansive; he even explains why eminently sane men like Neville Chamberlain and George W. Bush made such poor leaders. Though sane people are better shepherds in good times, sanity can be a severe liability in moments of crisis. A lifetime without the cyclical torment of mood disorders, Ghaemi explains, can leave one ill equipped to endure dire straits. He also clarifies which kinds of insanity-like psychosis-make for despotism and ineptitude, sometimes on a grand scale.

Now, I’m not depressive, strictly speaking.  I don’t stay in bed all day, and so on. But the Welsh family motto, no kidding, is this:

    An optimist and a damn fool are the same thing.

Ordinary people, what we call “sane” in our society, are really shitty analysts.  Really, really shitty analysts.  Their bias to the upside is tiresome, predictable and makes them wrong, over and over and over again.  They don’t know what real threats are, they constantly are confused about what is really dangerous.  They think stranger pedophiles are a big danger to their kids, while it’s their family members or their own driving.  They think terrorism is dangerous, when almost no one dies from it, as opposed to crossing the street or eating too many Big Macs.  They fear “Osama” when the men who are most likely to cause their death or impoverishment have names like Bush, Paulson, Geithner, Obama and so on.

I walked through Calcutta’s slums, as a teenager, by myself.  I know what’s actually dangerous, and what isn’t.  But my parents didn’t coddle me, didn’t think their job was to make sure I never faced any danger, no matter how minor, so that when released as an adult I wouldn’t know how to evaluate threats.  They also didn’t think my self-esteem should outrun my ability.

Of course optimism is wonderfully adaptive as long as optimists aren’t your leaders or analysts, and don’t run your nuclear power plants, or plan your economies, or make any decisions about anything which if it goes wrong can go catastrophically wrong.  Optimists are happier, they live longer, they’re healthier, they “get up and go”, blah, blah, blah.  Optimism is good for optimists and hey, they’re generally more pleasant to be around, too.  There are time periods when they’re even right a lot (say during the 50s).  But basically, they’re blind.  One imagines conversations between cows. “Hey, they feed us every day, we get free health care, no real responsibility!  The dog makes sure the wolves don’t bother us.  This is great!  I do wonder what happened to Thelma and Fred, when they took them away in that truck?  But I’m sure it wasn’t anything bad, and if it was they must have deserved it, and anyway, that’d never happen to me, because I’m a good cow and this is the best herd in the whole world!”

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing, and want more of it, please consider donating.)

And you can tell people what will happen, in advance, and be right, over and over and over again.  And what that will do is get you marginalized.  “Oh, he’s so negative! Such a downer. He should make us feel good about ourselves and our future, and if he doesn’t, we won’t listen. Let’s watch some TV!”

The stuff that makes you a good everyday person, a pal at the pub, the best husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, mother or father, does not make you a good analyst or a good leader.  Choosing other sheep to lead you, to guide you, gets you what you’re getting right now, good and hard.

And the medicalization of every bad mood, as if we’re supposed to never experience negative emotions is more psychotic than the “diseases” they are intended to treat.  Yes, some people are so insane that they need big time help, and being drugged, but way more people than that are being drugged.

Likewise I am beyond tired of the excessive stigmatization of anger and hatred.  It is appropriate to hate some people.  If you don’t hate a man who has killed tens to hundreds of thousands of people (you don’t know because he refused to count) for a war based on lies, while gutting your civil rights, you are either a saint or your values are so fucked up I don’t even know what to say.  You hate some people (yes, you do, don’t deny it), why don’t you hate the people who are actually doing evil on an industrial scale and who directly threaten your prosperity and your good life?  And why, exactly, aren’t you angry?  Again, don’t tell me you don’t get angry (unless you’re a saint), so why aren’t you angry at the people who are destroying your future and the future of your children?

Oh, right, because most people suck at threat analysis.  They don’t even know what or who is really dangerous.  They don’t /want/ to believe that people who look like they’d be great to have a beer with, or Uncle Fred, or driving their beloved automobile, or the food that they eat, is what’s actually going to kill them, make them sick, or hurt the kid they profess is just the most special and important person in their life, except when it comes to making sure the kid will have a world worth living in.

So folks.  Hate can be awful, it can lead to awful crimes.  But you’re going to hate someone, so learn who to hate.  Anger can be terrible, few people know that better than I do, as my father’s temper was the terror of my youth, but you’re going to be angry, know when and with who to get angry with, and stop displacing your anger.

And screw hope.  Screw optimism.  Really, seriously.  Hope is like pride, you should have exactly as much hope as the circumstances dictate, and no more.

But you can’t live that way.  I know.  You need your hope.  You need to believe.

Ok.  That’s fine.  I understand. Variety is good.

But don’t insist that everyone else be like you.  And understand your own weaknesses.  Know what you suck at.  Find the people who don’t suck at those things, figure out which ones to trust (that’s a whole other essay) and listen to them.  No one is good at everything (I sure as hell am not), but a wise person knows what they are bad at.

Who is mad?  The pessimist, the depressive, who accurately understands the world around him, or the hope filled optimists who are blind to real threats, can’t predict the future worth a damn and who select their leaders based on “wouldn’t it be great to have a beer with him?”

I don’t know, and I don’t even really care.  But I do know that when I want to have good time at a party, or I need a good salesman, I look for different abilities than I do in good analysts and good leaders.  That the person who runs my nuclear plants should not be Mr. Fucking Sunshine, “it’ll all work out for the best!”

Just, no.

And stop drugging your kids en-masse.  Ok?  Just stop.

Originally published August 29, 2011. Ironically I now see reasons for hope (not optimism, optimism is never appropriate in an analyst. Also, I was, errr, somewhat angry and bitter back in 2011.


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