Friday, May 8, 2009

Positive Thinking

I was recently accused of generally having a negative attitude, which caught me totally by surprise. The explanation for the accusation centered on my focus on preparing for bad outcomes instead of a default expectation of good outcomes. My surprise came from my internal reasoning for this bias, a rule my father drilled into me from childhood: Prepare for the worst case and hope for the best case (I’ve modified this rule somewhat over the years to include a provision for working hard to reduce the probability of the worst case becoming reality). If I was spending more time than not in thinking about worst case scenarios, my rationale continued, it was because they were proving uncomfortably likely.

Some honest self-evaluation soon followed, as it typically does when I find a potential problem with my world-view. Testing and refining world-views is something I’ve been doing instinctively for as long as I can remember. Over the years I’ve come to accept that being an iconoclast is in my nature, and a fierce honesty has forced me to do my homework when it comes to challenging what I think I know, and by extension, what others think they know. This life-process validated my father’s rule, since my challenges often yielded critical oversights that threw the most positive interpretations into doubt. It’s what made me a good test engineer and led to novel insights (such as when I helped my father with his rediscovery of basic math concepts). It also led to my separation from my religious and political roots, which seems to have severely limited my relationships with some friends and family.

It doesn’t take a long memory to realize that most of my thoughts and writing has been somewhat dark, especially about the future of the world. I’ve tried to avoid being fatalistic, looking for a course of action that could make a dent in the numerous problems I’ve uncovered both from my own work and that of others. I told myself often that, once I found such a course, I could concentrate on developing positive momentum instead of just making a better case for taking action. I was still reticent, however, a consequence of challenges by those I tried to enlist in the effort, who questioned the basis of my conclusions and thus triggered my persistent (if increasingly attenuated) self-doubt response. Knowing that, like fear, the source was in my own head, didn’t help. While sorting this all out, I followed conventional prescriptions for survival, such as taking any job that used my most developed marketable skills, which brought its own frustrations.

At the end of the day, I decided that what I was hearing was a plea to at least emotionally project a positive, solutions-based orientation. Perhaps by trying to do this, I might be able to make some real progress beyond problem definition and fruitless challenges to the business-as-usual world-view held by the people around me.

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