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Reg Braithwaite on Optimism (github.com/raganwald)
94 points by raganwald on May 1, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 39 comments

It's fairly amusing to me that this essay can explain away the vast majority of my existential angst. As much as I hate to admit it, I had an 'aha' moment while reading this.

What I really enjoyed about this post was that it talked about using research to come to an explicit algorithm to learn optimism. I could never swallow the advice of many optimistic people in my life since they [through no fault of their own, mind you ;)] were not usually hackers. As such, they would explain in broad and nebulous terms how they achieved said happiness, which makes sense, since--according to the essay--they see positives as general and permanent. I would always focus on their seemingly obvious contradictions, without really noticing my own. I guess I'm just glad someone finally pointed that out to me.

As much as I hate to admit it, I had an 'aha' moment while reading this.

I know that feeling, but I wonder if that might be another tendency worth training away. "Aha" moments are one of the greatest pleasures in life and should be actively sought out.

Trying to always know everything is a tyranny from which I would like to escape.

At the risk of trying for the HN-discouraged "witty reply:"

I'm not young enough to know everything--Oscar Wilde

That's a really, really great insight. may I add it? Or better yet, would you like to fork homoiconic, add your comment, and send me a pull request?

Thanks! And pull request sent (feel free to change the formatting, I just took a stab at it).

Tangentially, I signed up for github in that process (I know, I can already see my geek cred dwindling). I've downloaded projects from there many times, but I suppose since my repositories are on google code I never had a reason to create an account. It was incredibly simple and enjoyable to use. Very slick!

I have mixed feelings about Seligman. Those three concepts are indeed useful. On the other hand, the experiments that made his name, though presumably within the standards of the time, involved treatment of dogs so cruel that it's hard to read about them without wondering what kind of person would do such things. Basically they showed that, when randomly tortured, most dogs become depressed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness). Bizarrely, or perhaps naturally, these experiments turn out to have been one of the inspirations for the CIA torture program. Seligman says he had nothing to do with it, but he did have contact with the people who designed it and has declined to publicly disagree with their application of his work (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/07...). This is admittedly a weak link, but a notable one.

I noted the conceptual connection between "learned optimism" and "learned helplessness", but didn't realize it was the same guy.

I want to expand on "randomly tortured" dogs. The electric shocks given weren't damaging (though they were painful), it was the lack of power over them was damaging, leaving the dogs hopelessly cowering in a corner. It wasn't the torture that harmed them, but its arbitrariness. That is, the cruelest part was not the torture itself. Knowledge can be used to harm people; but it can also be used to help them, as Dr. Seligman has subsequently done with "learned optimism".

I agree that giving electric shocks to dogs is a disturbing thing to do.

The electric shocks given weren't damaging

According to whom?

Electric shocks that were damaging would defeat the purpose of the experiment. It required a comparison between dogs that had some control over the shocks and those that didn't (though both received exactly the same shocks). If both dogs were harmed, it would be harder to differentiate the harm due to the randomness.

Of course you may doubt their reporting of their own experiments. We only have their word for it that they conducted the experiments at all.

Thanks, Reg, outstanding article.

One great satisfaction in working with a group of people is getting to the point where they know you pretty well and have solid estimation of your skills. It frees you up to ask stupid questions without (or with less) concern of being labeled a stupid person.

I think it was Marvin Minsky who said that children should be encouraged to make mistakes, because that is how you learn. The dominated culture in the USA, though, seems to tie individual instances of failure with an essential, long-term, character deficiency.

This is a great article.

With regard to the 'call to action', I wouldn't under estimate the difficulty in changing the context (duration, specificity or 'me'-centricity) of our judgments because:

a) our need to judge is not causeless. It arises for our self-concept and

b) changing our thoughts is nigh impossible if they conflict with what we fundamentally believe is true.

So this whole things comes back really to what we believe is true about ourselves.. Is our self-concept true or is it a figment of our imagination?. Our judgments, and therefore how we 'see' anything, arises from that. Like the Paul Simon said, '...we see what we want to see and disregard the rest'

So how do we see what is true?

This is tricky because the mind that asks the question is the same mind that has created the self-concept.... and so it can never reason it's way beyond itself. We invest a lifetime justifying, aggrandising and clinging to the thing we call 'me' and so seeing ourselves as we really are in not going to happen using the old familiar tools.

It seems to me that to know the simplest of truths requires an openness that few of us are used to -- no thinking, no talking, no reasoning, no calculation, no busyness, no effort of any kind. Simply holding in mind what it is we needs to know and leaving an open and welcome space to be able to hear.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh nails this for me: "The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient..... Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea."

Can you see now why approach is particularly troublesome for hackers? We have brought up to be value knowledge, reasoning skills and discourse... and ashamed of ignorance. Yet it is ignorance that is called for!

So what to do?

Not the place to attempt that one here (perhaps a blog post) but it seems that our own path through life is itself this process of becoming willing to let go of our clinging to our pre-conceptions -- of answering the fundamental question 'Who am I without my judgements'. Life will always find some way to pry our hands away from clinging, even if our clinging is to the need to no longer cling.

A thoughtful essay as usual, but I did chuckle a bit at the self-referential 3rd person in this particular headline. :P

I wanted to distinguish between raganwald the blogger and Reg Braithwaite the person. This essay really was a Reg Braithwaite thing. But it is a temporary measure ;-)

Ah, fair enough. I was hoping that the general, personal, and permanent nature of my praise along with the temporary and specific nature of my criticism would not be lost on you. :P

I think it goes very well with this article about how to get big projects done: http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/11/getting-big-projects-done-b...

For twittering, it might help to note that that "personal" and "permanent" can be thought of as different forms of "general"; and "impersonal" and "temporary" can be thought of as different forms of "specific".

I made that connection as well, but I wanted to present Dr. Seligman's work as directly as I could without editorializing it and then move on to discuss my own opinion of how it relates to hacking and programmer culture.

He may have had extremely good reasons for maintaining the subdivision between the three axes that are too subtle for me to grasp. For example, it could be that when writing tests to identify optimism, he found that he could only get a strong correlation between score and behaviour if he included questions from all three groups.

I don't know :-)

This point of view looks a bit like taking the "blue pill" to me. It might make you happier (in the "ignorance is bliss" sense) but I doubt it will make you more succesful. If you attribute all your faults to bad luck and all your success to being smart, great etc., you are not going to improve yourself much, after all we learn a lot from our mistakes. I have to say, though, that I haven't read the book, i just checked in internet to see what it is about.

Have you read the book? As the essay says, I don't recommend you judge Dr. Seligman's research from my anecdotal summary of a book he wrote summarizing his research for laypersons. I simply recommend you read the book and, if you are so inclined, pursue his original research.

I like the idea of cognitive therapy (mind hacking), and this interpretation of optimism/pessimism, but I get tripped up on the categories. It seems to me that "permanent/temporary" is an instance of "general/specific". Even the illustration of permanent, "gems are always a pain", seems to be a generalization from one gem to all gems. Although it uses the word "always", the focus seems to be on the gems, not on time. I'd prefer not to be tripped up by issues of categorization that don't really matter, so I welcome clarification of this confusion. :-)

Fred Brooks claimed that programmers are optimists; but I've heard many people claim that engineers are pessimists - and need to be. What can go wrong will go wrong, so anticipate it. It seems that Dr Seligman has data showing that his tests really do predict the success of salespeople - but do they predict the success of engineers? Or... predict engineering success inversely? (Even if true, programming is not exactly engineering; and of course a startup has at least as much sales as engineering, e.g. Jobs/Woz).

It seems to me that "permanent/temporary" is an instance of "general/specific".

As explained in another reply here, that occurred to me but I resist summarizing it so. Although it seems to be trivially true, it may turn out that if you collapse the categories in your mind you lose the benefits of hacking your mind when you do that.

Also, collapsing things to the most "general" observation may be a psychological turing tar pit, a place where "everything is possible but nothing of interest is easy." If you only think of the most general aphorism, it may require a lot of work to apply it to various situations. The "specific" rules (personal/impersonal, permanent/temporary, general/specific) may require three times the storage but be very easy and fast to apply.

I don't know, which is why I resist trying to editorialize. If I were a psychologist, I would take a conjecture like that and test it. Which is often the difference between pundits and scientists. A pundit wonders if such-and-such is the case and writes an essay. A scientist wonders if such-and-such is the case and then sets about trying to devise a means of testing the conjecture.

I don't know if being pessimistic abut my code would make it better. I do know that tending towards pessimism of the sort described by Dr. Seligman has made me unhappy.

Thanks for your reply. I agree with you that speaking abstracting "permanent/temporary" is an instance of "general/specific". To be precise: temporary is an instance of specific, over time. Categorizing an explanation as temporary means that it is contained within a specific (and short) period of time. (I also agree that concrete categories can often be helpful in practice even if they aren't strictly necessary in theory.) That's what I think you meant in your comment above.

But that isn't what I meant. My confusion is how to apply it - how to actually categorize concrete explanations in practice? The example again "gems are always a pain" seems to be generalizing over gems, and not over time. Therefore, it would be a better example of general rather than permanent. A better example might be "this gem/Windows/linux/PC never works! It always messes up, every single time I use it." My difficulty is that (it seems to me) that every example can be recast in either form, because different events in a person's life occur at different times - to generalize over events is to generalize over time; and to generalize over time is to generalize over different events.

It occurs to me that an explanation might be neutral along some of these dimensions - an explanation might not be explicitly permanent, nor explicitly temporary. Or one might have a default, and say "if it isn't explicitly temporary, then it's permanent". eg, "they're just jealous because I'm smart" doesn't mention time, so by default it is permanent. Or, there could be a continuum along a dimension, corresponding to the size of the set generalized over: only this one instance---similar events---absolutely everything (and similar for the permanence/temporary dimension).

It might seem that I'm picking on your example, as not an ideal one to illustrate permanent/temporary (which was its purpose). I am. But I make the same kind of error (assuming it is one). And it seems to me that categorizing something as more strongly along the general/specific dimension, or more strongly along the permanent/temporary dimension seems arbitrary, and one can do it just as one feels - there's no principle behind it. Perhaps it is still useful, even without a principle behind it, but I'm uncomfortable with this.

Summary: I don't know how to classify an explanation as "permanent/temporary" or "general/specific" in practice. [answered in replies]

Or maybe I just too much :-). But it was important to me to lay this out clearly. [I haven't yet read your other reply that you mention - now read]

gems are always a pain

"Gems" is general about gems, it suggests that all gems have this problem. And "always" is permanent about time. The statement also implies impersonal: It suggests this is true for everyone, as opposed to "I'm always flocking gems up on my projects."

I chose that to illustrate just one of the three axes, but to my ear it sounds like it is saying impersonal, general, permanent.

So I agree with what appears to be the general thrust of your argument which is that an explanation might be neutral on one axes, or imply something about one axis, or make statements about two or more axes.

I suppose this is why Dr. Seligman makes tests with many, many questions. You need to aggregate a lot of explanations from one person to get a picture of their underlying attitude toward positive and negative events.

I have been troubled by cognitive therapy techniques, because they are implicitly intended to be used in the way that Seligman does. But they purport to be truthful, when they are intended to be used in a biased way. If you use them in a non-biased way (for example, to undermine good feelings, not just undermine bad feeling), they'll make you feel bad.

That's what I like about the two levels of this definition of optimism: it comes right out and says that it is biased, as a way of containing bad things, and expanding good things. The categories at the second level (personal, specific, temporary etc) appear to be just the same as cognitive therapy techniques.

So... thanks for that. :-)

Thanks, discussing it has helped a lot. I think my confusion was in thinking the axes are exclusive, but of course an explanation can be general and permanent.

Can it be general and temporary? Everyone is driving like madmen today!

Or specific and permanent? Damn it, my car is always breaking down!

Yep. The specificity depends on the framing ("everyone is driving" generalizes over individual drivers, but is specific to the set of drivers - it excludes people in offices, at home, at sea, etc). But that's a different confusion :-) and maybe the explanation includes the frame (and thus fully defines the specificity with respect to it), and framing is an important tool for changing one's interpretation from pessimistic to optimistic.

I've not read the book (yet) but I have read a couple of reviews and it sounds like Seligman appreciates that there is a time for pessimism as well as optimism.

Here's one http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/40033602.

"Unlike many self-help books, there's no bad-mouthing of pessimists here. In fact, Seligman describes studies that seem to prove that pessimists are much better at seeing the world as it really is. ...

... The author explains how to balance optimism and pessimism and when to listen to each voice, though of course it could take a lifetime to perfect this process."

I really like his suggestion on differentiating praise and criticism.

I have already been depersonalizing criticism though. I basically started to believe that I am much more than the sum of my problems or difficulties. But while criticism isn't personal, nobody owes me help and I'm the only one who has the responsibility of dealing with it. Of course I can still take criticism personally, but I'm at least forcing myself to focus on finding things that I can do to solve the problem.

"plural of anecdote is not data"

Yes it is. It's just not (or probably not) statistically significant.

That's what the saying means. "The plural of anecdote is (probably) not statistically significant data" is not very catchy. Imagine if you had to say "a rolling stone (most of the time) gathers no (or at least very little) moss."

Yeah, I understand the intent of the phrase, I just think it's a bad way of putting it.

By the way, I did enjoy the Optimism presentation. I didn't mean to take away from it with my nitpick.

Or else it's biased. It's easy to fool yourself with a large number of anecdotes (listening only to like-minded people, for example), but "data" implies some directed collection was done and some thought was given as to what you're actually sampling.

"Learned Optimism," by Dr. Martin Seligman is going on my to-read list!

Why is everything written by a Ruby programmer so damn long-winded?

Funny. So what's the optimistic version of that comment?

How about:

I'm always interested in the thoughts of other programmers. This article is a bit longer than I have time for at the moment. Would anyone care to summarise?

Maybe you're not serious, but the thought of people communicating that smarmily makes my skin crawl.

Well, the essay goes further than suggesting that people think before speaking and communicate a certain and possibly different way: The essay calls on people to actually think in a certain and possibly different way.

If someone is looking at something and thinking of the positives in personal, general, and permanent ways and thinking of the negatives in impersonal, specific, and temporary ways, then I trust that whatever they choose to say sincerely will work out just fine.

Well its a serious question. There's definitely value in the ideas of Seligman. But it requires skill to apply them in conversation the way Reg suggests without sounding overly deferential and false. Depersonalising criticism where appropriate seems a reasonable approach. Often the personalisation is just a habit that doesn't actually express your intention. Prefacing every criticism with praise could get very old very quickly.

As with a lot of mind hacking (aka self-help), the key is to apply it to oneself, not to others. Turns out people don't like being hacked (get out of my mind!) And to apply it to ones operational thinking, not to how one expresses oneself.

But a discussion of how to apply it to ones own thinking can be a helpful preparatory exercise. In that spirit, and with apologies to the parties involved (the OP is obviously having a joke anyway):

Definition of "optimism": good things are explained as personal, general and permanent; and bad things are explained as impersonal, specific and temporary.

(1) Why is everything written by a Ruby programmer so damn long-winded?

This is describing a bad thing (long-windedness). "Everything" is general. "Ruby programmer" is impersonal wrt to the speaker (it's personal wrt those programmers as a class, but impersonal wrt Reg - but I don't think these are relevant)."Everything" is also permanent, as it includes every time an essay is written, and there is no explicit limit to when such essays will cease being written (not the interminableness of any individual essay). An optimistic explanation for a bad would be impersonal, specific and temporary - this one is impersonal, but it's general and permanent. So it's mostly, but not completely pessimistic. A more pessimistic version is:

- Why am I always so slow at reading everything?"

(2) I'm always interested in the thoughts of other programmers. This article is a bit longer than I have time for at the moment. Would anyone care to summarise?

This is also about something bad ("longer than I have time for"). "I" is personal wrt to the speaker ("I don't have time"; in contrast, the article is only "a bit longer" - the problem is mine, not the articles). "At the moment" is temporary. "This article" is specific. An optimistic explanation for a bad would be impersonal, specific and temporary - this one is personal, specific and temporary, so it is mostly, but not completely optimistic. This definition of optimistic isn't the same as "nice", "kind" or "positive". A more optimistic version is:

- This article is too long to read right now

( The other sentences aren't part of the explanation (and maybe aren't explanations at all?), but anyway, the preface is about a good thing and is personal, general, permanent; the epilogue is an action step about a good thing, and is impersonal, permanent, specific. )

> Why is everything written by a Ruby programmer so damn long-winded?

Because he hasn't yet learned Smalltalk.

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