I had a classmate last semester; let's call him John. John perpetually arrived 10 minutes late to class, almost always without a notebook, pen, or laptop. Our class met three times a week for fifteen weeks, meaning that these delayed added up to roughly seven and a half hours of class time over the course of the semester.
"Good to see you, John," my professor would announce toward the room, as John shuffled behind through the tight space behind, late again. A chuckle would occasionally erupt from the class but after a handful of these instances, even this response represented too much effort.
Can you think of someone in your life like this?
One class John didn't show up at all. Only partially frustrated, the professor surveyed the class, "Can I change the topic for a second?" He was known for doing this often, so none of us were sure if he was about to vent about how much grading he still had to do, pull up a funny Youtube video, or talk about how much he hated the coffee machine at our school.
Instead, he poses the question, "What do people who are late for everything have in common?" He was obviously talking about John. Hand-raising wasn't always necessarily in our classroom so answers began to be blurted. Many of them you may have thought of yourself: laziness, apathy, low drive. Many represent the antithesis to cornerstone American values.
My professor grinned, excited to have stumped us in this riddle. The answer, "Optimism."
He reasoned that individuals who are truly optimistic (not just self-identifying optimists) always believe things will work out for them. If John leaves his dorm three minutes before class begins at 10:57, he's sure he'll make it by 11:00. If John leaves his dorm three minutes before class begins and runs into a friend on the way, he's sure he'll make it in time, even if he exchanges a little chatter with them. These are the individuals that take time to smell the roses. They don't always see a need to plan life out, because life will sort itself out on its own — in fact, the life that comes to them is the best version of life they could live.
A brief history of the word 'optimism': The original word, optimum, is Latin for 'best thing.' The Philosopher Gottfried Leibniz uses a new French version of this word, l'Optimum, in 1737 to describe an existence within the best of possible worlds. Optimism doesn't arrive in the English vernacular until Voltaire's work is translated to English, eventually becoming associated with satire. In other words, optimism was a silly thought. Optimism, furthermore, is not very much in line with the Protestant work ethic (consider Max Weber's work). It was because of the satirical nature of optimism that it became permeated into the 18th century broader society. It wasn't until 1819 when Percy Bysshe Shelley reinvented the definition of optimism to be 'a tendency to have a generally hopeful view,' the way many of us view optimism in the vernacular now.
This leaves us with two ways of viewing optimism. The first perspective of optimism combines ideas of predestination and the fruits of asceticism. It's passionate. It's convicted. The second approach describes a more childish, lofty view of the human experience, one where the individual appears hopeless in their hopefulness. It's faith. It's hands off the wheel.
I've grown up in an environment that views 'optimism,' in a subcultural sense, as a virtue. Personality tests measure for optimism. Individuals proudly profess their optimistic view of life. They coach pessimists to lighten up and look at the bright side of life.
I might have even considered myself to be an optimist in a past stage in my life. I was fun, loving, lead people pretty effectively in teams. I wrote up meeting agendas ahead of time. I got things done. I followed up. I showed up 15 minutes early for everything… oh, wait.
My mom, growing up, always taught me to plan for the worst case scenario in the best way possible. She always had her leather-bound agenda out on the dining room table as she worked, penciling in new plans for the months ahead. Once April came around she would begin to get antsy, knowing she'd have to buy a new July-June agenda since she was planning too far in advance.
This message was reinforced in High School with a career specialist that preached the gospel of showing up unreasonably early to events lest traffic hit. We were rewarded for showing up to as many events as possible, which required careful planning between extracurriculars.
I bought an hourly planner for my Junior year and color-coded each 15-minute time slot in case it got difficult to read. It helped my sanity a lot. Although I don't hourly schedule my days on paper anymore, I certainly do this through Google calendar. I never want to forget a birthday, awards ceremony, or school play ever. Taking time to make sure I never forget is important because I truly don't believe I'll remember.
According to my professor's definition of optimism, I was certainly not one. In fact, I realized, most optimists drove me insane! It made no sense to me.
This is not to say that optimism is a vile disease we must cut off before it infects us all. There are clear benefits to being an optimistic person. Harvard found that optimists are generally healthier at 45 and 60 than pessimists. A study of Hall of Fame baseball players found that optimists had higher longevity by a longshot, compared to their pessimist peers. Their mental health is better. They are happier people. These individuals are, however, prone to manipulation, abuse, and, as this story has pointed out in some individuals, perpetual tardiness.
I suppose the greater point my professor was trying to make out of my classmate being late to class was that optimism has an ugly side. Optimism can hurt those around you, but it ultimately it can cause you to sabotage yourself.
Pessimists get a bad reputation. They're seen as Debbie Downers. They appear to always prepare for the worst case instead of reveling in the best cases that are thrown their way. In actuality, though, pessimists do a lot to secure their futures as well as those around them. Pessimists are over prepared. Pessimists rehearse (and rehearse again, just in case). Pessimists eat breakfast. Pessimists think of all the possible scenarios deeply, even if a big list of them are implausible and cause them a fuss.
Pessimists figure they better fill up on gas before driving a few hours. Optimists run out of gas.
There is power in pessimism! I want to see that power realized and respected.
Every optimist should have a good pessimist in their life to keep them grounded and every pessimist should have an optimist in their life to keep them human.
As for John, I'm sure he found himself with a low participation grade. I think I also heard he forgot to turn in some pretty important papers, but I can't be sure. It turns out, he figured our professor would give him a multi-month extension four days before classes disperse.
Classic optimist move.