It’s all too easy to surrender to pessimism. But (at least on a macro level) it’s also pretty illogical when you step back and think about things.
Outrage or optimism?
Here’s the logic. In the last 30 years, extreme poverty has fallen from 26% to less than 10% of the world’s population (extreme poverty is defined as people living on less than $1.90 per day). Child labour has halved over the same time period. World hunger is down by 75%. And fewer people are dying in wars or conflicts (in the 1300s it was 32 people per 100,000 and it’s now less than 2). In developed countries like the UK, we have more leisure time, more disposable income, higher living standards and a greater life expectancy than at any time in our history.
All of which seem like good reasons to be optimistic.
Which is why it’s so odd that when you ask people if they think the world is getting better, worse or staying the same, only 11% of people think things are getting better. In fact, the more developed the nation, the more pessimistic people are.
So why are so many of us such natural pessimists?
The first reason is that our perception of what’s going on around us is skewed by the information that’s in front of us. Watch the news tonight and see how many of the stories contain anything optimistic. Most evenings the answer is zero (a study in the US showed that 90% of all media stories in 2021 were negative).
This overload of pessimism means that we’ve been conditioned to hunt out negative news stories. In fact, when a Russian news outlet decided to publish only positive stories for a day, its readership fell by 66%. The scary reality is that if we’re constantly seeking out things that have gone wrong, our perspective and our view of what’s possible changes.
The second reason is that our perception of what’s negative or bad changes over time. If, for example, someone asked you to classify facial images as threatening or non-threatening, and they then reduced the number of threatening images, you’ll probably start to define more neutral faces as threatening. That’s because when problems become less common, we start to see more things as problems. So even when things are getting better (which they undeniably are), we respond by expanding the problem. Our brains keep shifting the goalposts.
I write all of this because it’s so easy to fall into the pessimist’s trap (as much in our personal lives as our professional lives).
What we need more of is…
Personally, I’m a firm believer that we need more optimism. In fact, I’d love Octopus to be the kind of company that injects optimism into the relationships it has with all its stakeholders. From its people through to its community, shareholders and customers.
And here I’m not talking about the cross your fingers and hope kind of optimism, but rather some kind of hard-fought, gritty optimism. This, to me, is a combination of three things – original thinking, a sense of belief and resilience in the face of adversity.
So let’s apply these three factors to business.
Most entrepreneurs (the embodiment of optimism) don’t set out wanting to build a business which is the same as someone else’s (or just a little bit better). They believe there’s an entirely different way of doing things. These companies, at least at the start, stand for something different. This, in turn, gives everyone working for that company a reason to get out of bed, something to believe in and feel part of.
Sense of belief
There are so many hurdles to building a business. How can you expect anyone to believe in your business if you don’t believe in it yourself? Grit and determination filters through a business, but it all starts with the leadership team.
Lastly, resilience. Stuff very rarely happens as you think it will – in life as much as in business. There will be good times, bad times and terrible times (part of our pessimism comes from the fact that the bad and terrible times affect us more, and we remember them for longer). But how we react is always a choice. The people who keep smiling (and believing) in the face of setbacks are the people we should follow.
We all want to participate in a better future, and I believe that increasingly people are looking for solutions. That’s why the B Corp movement is so powerful. B Corps are optimistic, they’re realistic about the challenges we face today, and optimistic about the world we can create for a better tomorrow. These businesses are catalysts for change. They inspire all of us all to be more optimistic about the future, it’s contagious.