It begins with a basic acceptance that we will never really understand what’s going on around us. We’ll be wrong all the time, and oblivious even more frequently. It may feel as though we understand ourselves and our world around us, but the number of times we are wrong or surprised illustrates how little we actually know with certainty.
What do we do with this uncertainty?
We consider the facts that we accumulate, even though our perceptions on which those facts are based are often incorrect, and we fill in the gaps with assumptions that make sense. Then we turn those assumptions to fact with a magic wave of a mental wand.
This idea is uncomfortable for all of us, maybe even repulsive. It’s hard to swallow the idea that the world is so big and complex that no one really understands with certainty much of what’s going on.
But it’s not much a stretch to see some good in this as well. While we’d never be disappointed or look stupid if we were always right, we’d also lose our capacity for delight and surprise. And I know it’s easy to point at any number of problems in our society, but humanity does pretty well for itself despite mostly fumbling around in the dark.
Amid all of this uncertainty, we must act decisively all the time. You pick up enough signals from someone you like, so you ask them out. A situation seems dangerous, so you avoid it. Your boss hasn’t been so warm to you recently, so you worry that your job is in jeopardy.
In my experience everyone has a thermostat in their brain. Some are set all the way to cool and interpret everything negatively. If someone does something nice for them, they must pity them. And they don’t want their pity, so it actually makes them resent the person. Others are all the way hot, where everything seems good. That’s me.
I was talking with a friend recently about how I’m always positive. He says that I don’t write enough about it because I don’t understand how unusual it is.
We talked about an incident in high school. I was in color guard, where I put on tights and jazz shoes, picked up a flag, and danced to Jewel’s “Foolish Games” in front of big crowds at competitions. I was the first male to ever sign up.
At the senior skit, which I didn’t attend because I was at a color guard competition, I was a character. They had me fencing another student in a series of duels. The guy playing me was wearing a skin-colored leotard.
When I heard about this and saw it on video, I was flattered. I’m not above poking fun at myself, especially when I break the mold and dance around twirling a flag. It is funny. The kids who put on the show were the jocks and popular kids. I wasn’t ever close friends with any of them, but I’d chat with them as much as an introverted nerd could, and always got along well.
So I took it as friendly ribbing. My friend was certain that they were making fun of me in a bullying sort of way. We both see the other’s point logically, but neither can really relate on an emotional level.
It’s impossible to know who’s right. Probably neither of us are. Maybe some of those kids really didn’t like me and put the bit in to spite me. Maybe some admired that I had done something controversial like that and thought it was fun to joke about. Maybe some didn’t even know who I was and just liked the idea of one of their friends dressing in a flesh-colored leotard.
The interpretation of it does matter, though. Because I have a very strong bias towards seeing things in a positive light, that incident makes me proud. It reminds me that I was brave enough to go against the grain and that people noticed it. But if I was the kind of person who saw it in the worst light, maybe I’d still be affected by it today.
Whether they loved me, hated me, or felt someway in-between, believing the positive would have ended up working out best for me. That’s true of most situations like this.
I was talking with someone the other day about a date she’d been on. She really liked the guy and he seemed to really like her, but there were some potentially negative signs from him. She and I both agreed that 80-90% of the signs were positive, and the rest were unclear or negative.
She was concerned that the negative signs meant that the positive ones were just the result of politeness and that he may not be interested. I interpreted the negative signs as minor signals of nervousness or hesitation.
But think about their next date. Which set of assumptions will make it go better on average?
I’m not encouraging you to ignore reality. If a guy has a gun aimed towards you in an alley, it’s not going to serve you to think that maybe he’s just a gun enthusiast who wants to show you the cool barrel on his gun. If your friends sit you down to have an intervention, you should probably take their counsel and make changes.
But when there’s indecision or gray area, you’re generally better off just assuming the best and acting on it. You will be wrong sometimes, and sometimes that error will cost you and you would have been better off being pessimistic, but not usually.
People worry about being oblivious, but they rarely worry about sabotaging themselves. No one has accurate enough perception to be totally neutral. We all color our experiences positively or negatively and act based on those perceptions.
If you have a positive bias, you may be seen as naïve or oblivious when you’re wrong. I can’t think of examples where this has happened to me, but I’m sure it happens. Being cynical seems cooler for some bizarre reason.
But your life will go better if you take the risk of seeming oblivious and give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Harmful incidents will roll right off your back, you give yourself some space ahead to grow into, and you never sabotage yourself with pessimism.
How do you do that? Keep a journal, mental or written, where you write the positive version of any event you interpreted negatively. The point is just to train your brain to start using those pathways. And you can look back and see examples when you were right.
I’d rather be wrong once in a while while expecting the best than wrong once in a while expecting the worst. Things just work out better that way.
Photo is last night in Shibuya. Feels great to be back!