make better_mistakes

On Optimism

What traits make us better able to learn new skills? I think there’s a handful of qualities we can foster to make skill acquisition easier, but optimism may be the most important one.

Recently I began reading Learned Optimism, which claims that pessimists are significantly likelier to stay depressed than optimists are. I heard about the book after stumbling on a talk by @raganwald on optimism.

The book is good. I’m about halfway through it, and have taken tests which determine wether you are an optimist or a pessimist, and wether you are depressed or not, I can tell you that I am a pessimist, but I am not depressed.

I am especially glad to hear the second half of that. I have had depressions come and go since my teens, and this year has had it’s ups and downs. If I didn’t do a good job of maintaining myself, I could find myself in a depressive funk which can feel like it will go on forever.

The pessimist part of the quizzes is accurate, too. I am inclined to look at what can go wrong, and prepare well for when it eventually does. I am anxious. I tend to overthink my problems when I have them. Right now I am worrying if I am taking the right tact in this blog post.

When we’re learning something new, it is good to have an optimistic frame of mind. Because, eventually, there will be a setback. My partner is less tech-inclined then I am, and when she runs into a problem that she cannot solve on the computer, she throws her hands up and says “I’m no good at tech.” It pains me to see her pessimistic approach to technology.

When bad things happen, like if our programming environment is near impossible to setup, an optimist explains it as being impersonal, specific, and temporary. “It isn’t my fault Foo++ 0.9 isn’t easy to install, but the next version should be easier.” When good things happen, like creating an app in a new environment, the optimist takes it as personal, general, and permanent. “I’m really smart, which is what made putting together my Foo++-based webserver so quick and easy. I’m going to try building a bigger app next.”

Optimism is the attitude we need to foster to better encourage persistent improvement, especially when (inevitably) things don’t go as planned.