Great Quotes, Volume 7: On Pessimism Versus Optimism

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This week, David Gardner cleanses his podcasting palate from last week’s Rule Breaker Investing show about his worst losers by bringing us some of his favorite quotes.

In this segment, he takes a page from the book of President Harry Truman, whose life and career at many points could have made him a “glass half empty” type of guy. But it didn’t, and his views on optimism dovetail well with the Foolish philosophy.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Jan. 17, 2018.

David Gardner: Great Quote No. 2: Let’s go to President Harry Truman for this one. And I quote: “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities, and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

Well, I’ve had cause in the past and will always in the future talk about optimism and pessimism on this show. I love this Truman quote as one of the simple ways to express it. Catchy. Not so hard to remember. Pessimists making difficulties of their opportunities. Optimists making opportunities of their difficulties.

You know, back when Morgan Housel was writing for The Motley Fool — we continue to be fans of Morgan, whoever he’s writing for — if you go ahead and just google this phrase, “Why does pessimism sound so smart,” you’re going to see a 2016 article by Morgan, which is a wonderful article that’s largely making an orthogonal-connected point.

Pessimism sounds smart. In fact, I should quote just the start of the article, because it’s fun. ‘”For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell,’ historian Deirdre N. McCloskey told The New York Times  this week.”‘ That’s how Morgan started this article.

And he goes on to say, “It’s hard to argue. Despite the record of things getting better for most people most of the time, pessimism isn’t just more common than optimism; it also sounds smarter. It’s intellectually captivating and paid more attention to than the optimist who is often viewed as an oblivious sucker.”

“It’s always been this way,” he goes on. “John Stuart Mill wrote 150 years ago, ‘I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.'”

And Morgan finishes that section by quoting Matt Ridley, one of my favorite books, The Rational Optimist. Ridley wrote, “If you say the world has been getting better, you may get away with being called naive and insensitive. If you say the world is going to go on getting better, you are considered embarrassingly mad. If, on the other hand, you say catastrophe is imminent, you may expect a MacArthur Genius Award or even the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Pessimism sounds smart, doesn’t it? But the countervailing force, and the main thrust of my point here, is that optimism is not, to me, just a state of mind. Optimism is actually a creative force. It is, after all, those who believe something can be done who feel personally inspired, sometimes challenged, and inspire others and challenge others to actually go on to make that thing happen.

Whereas, understandably, when somebody doesn’t believe something will happen and lets others know, it’s very unlikely that that person will go on to achieve that or inspire anybody else to do so as well. So, optimism, at its heart, is not a state of mind. It is a creative force, and that’s such an important part of our culture here at The Motley Fool, and I hope your culture in your workplace, your family, your community, your life around you.

One of our core values of The Motley Fool is optimism, because the brothers who founded the company and fortunately hundreds of people who work for us recognize the importance of that and are driven every day to try to make things better. In our case to help the world invest better, which is the purpose of our company. But enough about us. I’m talking about you. I’m talking to entrepreneurs, I know, who already recognize this. The entrepreneurs generally are the optimists in any society, and I’m not just talking about capitalists. I’m talking about social entrepreneurs. I’m talking about anybody who starts something. You’re driven by a dream or a vision. Something that doesn’t exist today. Something that you believe you can make happen.

You know, when I had Roy Spence on this podcast a few months ago — I know everybody enjoys Roy; I sure did — I don’t think we talked about this, but one of my favorite Roy Spence lines is he says it’s the greatest joy in life to put something there that wasn’t there before. The greatest joy in life, whether it’s having a child, starting a company, chipping something out of stone into a sculpture, any form of art, any creativity, the greatest joy in life. Entrepreneurs of all stripes — artists, makers — recognize that. And when there are difficulties, we make those opportunities.

I love the Harry Truman quote. I was happy to thread some Housel in there, and some Spence, too, and I would just say if you already know this, just make sure you teach your children. I’m occasionally hearing studies about how millennials or young people, these days, are more pessimistic than previous generations than we might think. If you’re young I don’t think you should be at all.

I think the world’s going to continue to get better over the next 50 years. My money is backing that. A lot of us are invested in that belief, and I’m happy to say we’ve been proven time and time again, whether we’re talking about the last 10 years or the last 200 years, that not just the world is to the optimists, but profits, and growth, and the riches are, too. I hope you’re aboard the optimist train, and if you’re not, I understand, because we all have to balance each other out a little bit, but maybe I moved you a little bit closer to our caboose.

David Gardner has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends The New York Times. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .


The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.



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