The dangerous mix of optimism and innovation

I like to think of myself as an optimist. I want to see positivity and opportunities where others may see risk or ambiguity. Optimism is a necessity in innovation. After all, the chance of a new businesses or product to be successful is low.

(sidenote: I used to believe (and say) around nine out of ten Silicon Valley startups fail. According to Cambridge Associates around 60% of venture-backed startups fail, as reported by Fortune. There, failure includes returning 100% of the investment though. ) of the startups fail within a few years. Only one out of ten consumer product design projects are a success, where success only means being offered in stores.

Lots of things can go wrong when you create a new product. You probably have an incomplete view of the problem you’re solving. There can be all kinds of technical and organizational challenges. The competition and the economy may do something you’re not prepared for. Just to name a few things.

With that in mind, being realistic about any task in an innovation project could make you be like ‘whatever, this project is most likely going to fail anyway.’ Nobody likes working with someone who’s realistic about that all the time. Optimism, on the other hand, is good for team morale. Especially when things are difficult (you can’t know you have the best solution to a complex problem) or uncertain (when you’re almost out of runway).

You have to be crazy optimistic to think that you’re work is going to be successful despite everything. But worrying doesn’t get you anywhere when you have a product to launch.

So what’s the problem?

Being too optimistic to succeed on the market doesn’t have to be a problem in itself. If you’re investing your own money, you must be aware that the odds are against you. You’d just lose your own money if you fail. If you’re working with somebody else’s investment, well, they know what they’re up for. Where you may present a glorious future, they’ll see risk and costs. With their legal, accounting and business expertise, they bring back necessary pessimism to balance out your optimism.

That way, the market fixes positivity bias, right? Well almost. Nobody in the system has a direct incentive to make sure your innovation is sustainable.

I think that is a problem.

Smoke coming from an industrial chimney of Holly Refining
“I didn’t think climate disasters would already happen during my lifetime.”
Dirty plastic bottles at a water reservoir
“I’d think more people recycle their bottles.”
Bingham Canyon Mine. Each of the vehicles driving down is two stories tall.
“I thought copper mines were underground.”

Photos by: Patrick Hendry, Julia Joppien, Billy Clouse.

When there’s no incentive to think critically, optimistic brains are great at ignoring problems.

I recycle, only take short showers and cycle to work. Surely, says my brain, you can’t be one of the baddies! You don’t want to pollute, so you can’t be in a polluting business. So stop thinking about the environmental impact of your work. You’re designing software after all. How bad can it be? Surely not as bad as tangible products that are produced out of actual stuff that needs to be shipped all around the world?

Optimism is a necessity in innovation and at the same time it can make us dumb. Luckily there’s more than one way to be optimistic. I came up with three types. The first two we’ve been through already:

  1. Naive optimism: when you don’t know that you don’t know and believe everything is going to be okay. Like when my two-year old would run with the cars on the street if I’d let her.
  2. Ignorant optimism: you ignore attainable information that would change your mind on something you think is super awesome. This is a form of confirmation bias. Like when I believed riding a motorcycle wasn’t that dangerous, but didn’t look up the accident statistics.

The third type of optimism I call ‘stoic optimism’. Let me explain what I mean with that.

Stoic optimism

Stoicism’s primary meaning today is at odds with the Hellenistic philosophy. (sidenote: The Philosophize This! podcast has a great, entertaining double episode introduction to Stoicism. I also very much recommend the book How To Be A Stoic. ) was (is!) a way of life not unlike buddhism. Stoics accept that most things are out of our control. A common stoic morning meditation is to think of all the things that could go wrong. During the day, that prepares you for setbacks. And at the end of the day, when you didn’t get hit by a car, didn’t wet your pants at the big presentation and didn’t catch a cold or colon cancer, you can be grateful about that.

Stoicism advocates focusing attention on what’s under your control. Everything not under your control turning out good for you should be seen as positive surprise to be enjoyed. Bad things out of your control aren’t worth worrying about, as you can’t change them.

Applying that attitude to innovation work, we can be optimistic about many things. From being with friendly, skilled coworkers and working on interesting challenges all the way to basics like a warm office with beverages that come from a machine at your bidding. That wasn’t a given when they came up with stoicism 23 centuries ago.

We can be optimists

We can be optimistic about our work while being realistic about the problems we’re solving—and creating through our solutions! With the stoic attitude, we don’t need to act unrealistically certain about the results of our project.

We can be passionate about doing our work, regardless of its success. So we can be critical of what we do, without being negative about the job; we can be critical of the potential second, third and nth order effects it has on our businesses, products, users and the planet. So let’s be honest to ourselves, and critical. And optimistic.

Update March 2020: Danah Abdulla wrote this great article ‘Against Performative Positivity’ that explains my issues with positivity more eloquently and accurately. She doesn’t seem to agree with my conclusion and calls for ‘design dissent’!