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Monday, 20 April 2009

The Optimist


The Optimist Cover Ooooooo K. Let’s get a couple of things straight here before we start. I would never have brought this book in a month of Sundays. Had I seen it lying on one of the 3 for 2 tables in Waterstones I wouldn’t have given it a second glance. Had I seen it marked down in a bargain bin in Bookworld for 99p I wouldn’t have bought it. The only reason I read it was because I was sent a review copy and considering the fact I received several books in the same ‘care package’ I really couldn’t tell you why I picked this to read first. It’s not even fiction! And I honesty don’t remember the last time I read a non-fiction book from cover to cover.

The main reason I wouldn’t have picked the book is that it’s about optimism and I’ve always considered myself a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist although I have been known to fake realism on a good day. My defence of pessimism was always a simple one: If you imagine the worst thing that could ever happen you’ll never be disappointed, in fact most of the time you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out that it didn’t happen. This does not make me a closet optimist, however.

My wife maintains that I’m a realist. I actually have no idea what a realist is. Not in this context. Putting all the fangled philosophy schools aside for the moment, the bog-standard definition of realism is: “the tendency to view or represent things as they really are.” I think we can all agree on that. But where it falls down is when it comes to the future. One can have an optimistic view of the future or be pessimistic about it but how can one be realistic about the unknown since it’s not real. Once it becomes real that’s another matter. Actually I think Lawrence’s definition in his book probably hits the nail on the head:

Optimists and pessimists are people who consistently get the probabilities wrong. A realist, supposedly, gets it just right.

I don’t get it right more time times than not so I guess I’m not a realist. One thing I’m definitely not is a fatalist. I don’t believe there’s a grand plan. If there is I can say anything I want about this book and blame it on ‘the plan’. I believe very strongly in free will, the right to screw up our lives any way we choose and in our own good time. Granted unforeseen circumstances ... I was going to say ‘conspire against us’ but that implies a conscious mind ... let’s just say ‘get in the way’ more often than not.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met a true optimist. I’m met people so infuriatingly cheerful I could happily strangle them but I’ve always found their cheerfulness is simply a wall they hide behind to save them having to have much of an opinion about the future. They live very much in the moment.

All of which brings us to Lawrence Shorter’s book, The Optimist. This book charts the efforts of Mr Shorter to a) understand optimism and b) put that understanding into practice.

When we meet him one might be forgiven for thinking that he was not the man for the job. In fact rather than being an optimist our Lawrence (or ‘Loz’ as his friend Mark calls him) is more of an apathist than anything else:

Summer, 2006.

I was still in bed.

Sunlight beamed through the curtains, flickering as a neighbour’s car pulled out of the drive. I looked at the humps of my arms under the covers. They felt lethargic and heavy. A car revved up outside. I pictured the BMWs and Mercs along the street, beaded with dew, ready to be driven to their places of work by people who leapt out of bed every morning. How did they do it? I stared hopelessly at the ceiling.

What was wrong with me?

From this inauspicious position our hero rises to begin his quest. And it is indeed a hero’s quest even if it looks like a fool’s errand for much of the time. That I will give him. But simply because we find ourselves with a hero let us not automatically assume that his quest is a worthwhile one. Or at least not an attainable one. Oh no.

In the face of rising prices, looming wars, spreading diseases and holing ozone layers he decides to set out to find the secret of optimism. What I realised quickly is that despite having a very poor JBF (Jump out of Bed Factor – the book is full of stuff like this) Lawrence really is already quite an optimistic kind of guy to begin with; at least he does his damndest to be. What wears him down over the next three hundred plus pages are his encounters with a selection of the world’s most prominent optimists. And I have to give the guy credit. He takes his project very seriously and, even when he’s beginning to have grave doubts, he doggedly keeps going. I’m not sure this provides any evidence of optimism in itself, or even heroism, but determination-ism (yes, alright. I’m making up words), definitely.

The book is broken down into four sections: Hero, Lover, Seeker, Fool with a short Prologue and an Epilogue but don’t assume that he fails in his quest because there is another quest that at times looks as if it might eclipse his search for the truth about optimism.

Yes, it’s a woman. Of course it’s a woman. What else in this world brings the latent optimist to the boil in even the most hapless sap? Or maybe I mean sap to rise. You get the idea.

Life had obviously got wind of my promise to defeat pessimism and had decided to take me seriously. It was all part of the strange and disturbing power of the book. It was making stuff happen in my life, it was forcing me to be optimistic.

There was more, too.

Zara was a tall, spirited Dutch girl I had met two months earlier at a yoga centre – a place I had started attending after noticing the high density of attractive women in the vicinity. I hadn’t paid much attention to Zara at first, but on my third or fourth visit, I stopped and studied her across the room. She seemed more at ease than the others – and yet she didn’t wear sandals or have unseemly henna tattoos. She even had a sense of style. But what caught my interest was something else: she was full of brightness and enthusiasm. There was something exciting about her presence. When she laughed, I noticed, the cupboards in the kitchen actually vibrated. It was an optimistic laugh. A laugh I could imagine travelling around the world with.

I felt a rush in my tummy. My God, I thought, what if Zara is the one?

Zara doesn’t appear until page 92, however, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves. By page 19 (and after a week in the British Library) our hero has formulated a plan and has a list of potential optimists he aims to interview. At the top of this list for some strange reason is Bill Clinton. Here’s the ‘some strange reason’:

My father had been talking about Clinton ever since they stood next to each other in a gents’ toilet in Tokyo, 1993 – alongside John Major and the German Premier Helmut Kohl. The President hadn’t even bothered to say hello. Yet, for me, that was the moment that Clinton became a household god.

He begins a bit further down the list with a Danish statistics professor, Bjørn Lomborg “who claimed, ambitiously, that things weren’t as bad as everyone thought”. He contacts Lomborg by e-mail and gets a prompt reply from the professor saying he is too busy to meet up but that that anyway he saw himself as more of a realist.

Undeterred Lawrence presses on regardless and by hook or by crook (or by pretending he’s developing a project for the BBC) he manages to make contact with an impressive and diverse collection of people from rock stars (he runs into Mick Jagger while Mick is kicking a deflated football around Kensington Park) to religious leaders, one of them being Archbishop Desmond Tutu who amazingly enough left a review of Lawrence’s book on the cybershop website:

Desmond Tutu
New York, USA
17th March 2009


Funny and inspiring -- the New British Dream

Who needs anti-depressants, happy endings or chocolate pudding when you can wallow in a book like this? It's very hard to package what is basically a historical review of the philosophy of happiness into something you can read on the loo, tube and plane. Shorter takes us on a journey around the world -- from New York to India, South Africa to London -- and asks the question we all wrestle with -- how can we be perpetually happy? -- in a subtle and engaging way. And he gives us answers, without ever resorting to Oprah-esque platitudes or the empty sillinesses of the self-help brigade. His self-deprecating wit throws Toby Young into shadows of mediocrity; his taut and elegant prose augurs well for future books; and his empathy and humanity are inspirational. Suck it up, cynics! Here is the New British Dream in its multi-coloured, fragile glory!

Somehow I’m not convinced that this is the Desmond Tutu but one never knows, does one? Actually I do know because with a bit of digging around I found out that the name of the guy who wrote it is actually one Sebastian Doggart. It’s actually not a bad summary of the book I have to say, mind.

Lawrence does indeed travel far and wide in his quest for an answer and, as he makes progress, he starts to write up his Laws of Optimism beginning with the First Law:


Diagrams! Yes, there are diagrams. And formulae aplenty. The problem he finds on his travels is that a lot of seemingly wise (or at least clever) people have a lot of different opinions as to what optimism might be. I like Dr Wong’s tragic optimism:

‘The big limitation of existing models is that they treat optimism and pessimism as opposites.’

A breeze rattled the window frame. ‘They’re not?’

‘In the East,’ said the doctor firmly, ‘we don’t feel the need to split everything into opposites. We see things as a whole. For example, people can be both realistic-pessimistic and idealistically-optimistic at the same time.’

I scribbled this down. ‘Isn’t that a paradox?’

‘Chinese philosophy is always paradoxical. Optimism and pessimism are two related but independent dimensions.’

‘But how is that possible?’

‘Tragic optimism means admitting that life is tragic but still maintaining the hope that tomorrow will be better.’

In a review of the book on Camden Miniature Steam Services site (I kid you not, it’s a site all about steam engines) they have this to say:

I […] wouldn’t put it here if I didn’t feel it was worth reading; even if the first 50 or so pages are annoying, plough through them and keep going

He’s right pretty much. Lawrence’s first encounters aren’t amongst the most interesting in the book despite the fact they include Ashley Judd (Wesley Crusher’s squeeze in ‘The Game’ for all the geeks reading this), a cameo by Mick Jagger (aged rock god) and a decidedly grumpy Harold Pinter (inventor of the dramatic pause).

Surfing Rabbi Once we get onto the Surfing Rabbi, however, we’re talking.

The next morning I sat eating waffles while my brother surfed the internet.

‘Have you heard about the Surfing Rabbi?’ he asked.

I looked up. ‘Are you serious?’

‘He has a website.’

‘And he surfs while . . . rabbying?’

‘I dunno.’

I read through Rabbi Shifren’s website. It seemed he was for real.

Actually the whole Californian section of the book is just so … Californian. Sorry California.

Practically everyone I had met in California [....] had told me to be cool and live in the present moment. Living in the ‘now’ seemed to be the state religion, even if most people – strangely enough – seemed busy working on the technology of the future. As a result I found myself doing mental gymnastics while I tried to master the art of ‘going into’ my feelings but not letting them bother me at the same time. The key seemed to be not thinking at all. During my long drive back from Los Angeles I had almost swerved off the road while trying to stop myself from thinking. In fact, my brain was turning over the same thoughts – about not thinking – every two to three minutes. I was no longer able to control it. Not only that, I was exhausted from months of living in guest rooms and camping on sofas. I wanted it to end, I wanted to go home, I wanted to settle down and have kids.

By now we’re 252 pages deep into the book and you might be wondering at this point where the lovely Zara is. She’s in India. And so our hero diverts his quest to Goa (in India) where the lovely Zara is. After a tearful reunion in the airport (no, he’s the only one who cries) Lawrence sets off on his travels and gets caught up with Indian mysticism but, just before he’s about to lose perspective completely and join a cave full of cross-legged Europeans contemplating their navels, he sees sense, returns to Blighty and moves back in with his ever pessimistic father, pretty much back where he was on page 1. Has all of this been a gigantic waste of time? Granted he’s met some vacuous people and a few caught up in their own importance but not every encounter in the book will make you want to cringe or shake your head and wonder how dumb some people – and not all of them apparently Californians – can be. He meets business leaders, an ecologist, psychologists, economists and Richard Branson (the man we have to thank for turning the word ‘virgin’ into something quite cool (Virgin Cola excepted)) but, in an article in The Independent, Lawrence lists as his real teachers some of the ordinary men and women he bumped into on the way:

I will mention three of them: Immaculée Ilibagiza, a young woman who lived through the Rwandan genocide and faced her darkest fears as she hid in a bathroom for three weeks. Immaculée survived her ordeal, she says, because at a certain moment she realised she had the power to accept her situation, to forgive her would-be killers and become free from fear.

Then there was Emma, a city headhunter who was diagnosed with breast cancer, only to realise that she was not afraid of death and looked on her illness as an experience of profound learning – and suddenly found herself enjoying life more than she had ever done before.

And finally Akira Kazan, a modest Californian housewife who simply decided, one day, to be happy – and to stop waiting for it to happen. "You don't have to do anything," she told me. "It's already there." When I argued that it took some people years of therapy to reach just a basic sense of feeling OK, she shook her head: "You've just been conditioned with the idea that you have to do something before you can be happy. It's not true. You can just choose it. Now!"

Is achieving happiness the same thing as being optimistic? I’ve read the book and I’m still not sure. You’ll have to make you own minds up. To assist you in this you can download now for a limited time (although I’m not sure exactly how limited) an electronic copy of the book which those nice people at Canongate have provided here.

I started off expecting to hate this book. I didn’t love it (there are far too many pillocks in it) but I couldn’t say I hated it. I’m frankly not sure how to present this book to you. It’s witty in parts and it’s inspirational in parts but it’s not a laugh-a-minute book nor is it the kind of book that I expect might become required reading for people doing a degree in Advanced Optimism. I do however suspect it might make you stop and think. But whether it’ll make you change the way you think is another matter. This is not a textbook. It will appeal to the For Dummies generation without a doubt. Probably my biggest recommendation would be that if I’d decided to write a book about optimism then I might have actually ended up with something like this myself, only probably not as good because I wouldn’t want to leave my flat to write it.


laurence shorter Lawrence Shorter’s background is in business, finance and management consulting. When his last company, an internet business selling building materials, went bust in 2001 at the end of the dot-com crash, he took the chance to change direction and "do something creative". Becoming a stand-up comedian and writer he satirised the idea of life-coaching and self-help in a show on the Edinburgh Fringe. In addition he and his work have appeared on the BBC, in The Observer and The Independent, and at assorted London theatres. I have no idea if he’s still living with his dad but if he is then his dad probably still has all the best lines.


Rachel Fox said...

There was a piece by this author (about the book) in the Independent newspaper back in January. It's
here if you're interested.
I thought then that it sounded like an interesting book. Not sure when I'll ever get round to reading it though...piles of books everywhere I look...but I might get to it yet. I am a kind of terrified optimist/realist...which has its ups and downs...

Jim Murdoch said...

I did actually read that article when doing my research, Rachel. (I even quoted from it in the post but you must have missed it.) You might also have missed that you can download a free PDF of the book here which I found incredibly helpful in writing the review although I'm not sure I'd want to read the entire book that way. If you read nothing else at least have a skim through the chapters set in California (16-19).

Brady said...

I liked your run-down of this Jim. I'm snagging a copy from the link you provided and maybe I'll give it a poke or a prod.


Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you appreciated the review, Brady. I think it was an interesting decision by Canongate to make an e-book available like this. It certainly made writing the review easier although I still prefer a real book I have to say.

Diana said...

Thanks for the link and the review. I have been trying to classify myself in terms of optimism/pessimism for a while now and this may help.

I thought I was a failed optimist but I can't quite keep the optimism from coming back!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Diana, and I think you're probably right - it was certainly something that Shorter kept coming up against - that no one is all-optimist or even all-pessimist.

Dave King said...

Yes, well, Jim, I'm sure that thesis would earn you a Ph.D. were you to submit it. The link will be useful, I am sure, though I have not explored it yet. Maybe you should send a copy of the book to Downing Street. It would certainly be timely. I've always counted myself an optimist. I'm not sure if I am one, really. I think maybe I'm a would-be optimist trying not to defect. It's an absorbing post, whatever one might make of it from the personal angle, though I do think the crucial piece of info' came late: the fact that the author's background is in business! Still, we could do with more posts of that quality. Thanks.

McGuire said...

'The pessimist is never disappointed' - Someone.

That is, the pessimist, is always off looking for something else to be upset by.

I say most people are Irrationalists, thst is, experiecing bouts of every possible positive and negative emotion.

I'm a niave optimist in person, but in my written work I can be much more pessimistic/fatalistic/realistic. I'm optimistic in a self-deprecating kind of way. I know it's transitory and I have a serious thought or two about life, but to fling that all away for a good night of bevvy and conversation. For music and chance. Is much better than sitting in your house, communing like a monk, with four silent walls.

I think people often mistake happiness and contentment. Happiness is by definition transitory and insubstintial. But contentment, is long-term, sufficient, and requires no replenishment. People looking for happiness, will never find contentment, and will possibly even fail to have 'power' over their lives.

I won't be reading the book, but I liked your description and explanation of it. A welcome introduction.

Dick said...

Inspiring stuff, Jim. All close to the heart of this would-be pessimist who keeps getting mugged by hope. Another trip to Amazon is due.

Ken Armstrong said...

Given that it relates (a little)...

A pessimist is a female contraceptive and an optimist is a gal who doesn't use her pessimist.

(I'll just go)

Jim Murdoch said...

I would certainly hope that I'd need to do a bit more than this, Dave, to earn a Ph.D but then a university qualification is not what it used to be when I were a lad. I don't actually recall Shorter making any headway with British politicians. Maybe he did but they were too boring to include in his book.

A few good thoughts there, McGuire, but on the subject of happiness I always find myself drawn back to Aldous Huxley in Brave New World: " Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensation for misery." I have noticed, especially with the young, a desire to keep moving so that's it's hard to take stock because everything is always in flux. My father always said that "happiness is being content with whatever you have at any given point in time" and I suppose it's as good a definition as any other. That is the problem with words. Somehow contentment has been devalued, contentment is settling, making do whereas happiness is getting exactly what you want.

Yes, Dick, I think it's just as hard to be a total pessimist as Shorter found out it was to be an optimist 24/7. I see a lot of people being the one and keeping the other on the back burner. It's like the current economic situation, a lot of people have every right to be pessimistic in the short term but still hang onto some long-term optimism. In most cases we as individuals will have no control over either outcome and so it's almost academic what we choose to believe. I guess whatever helps us sleep at night (writes the guy who had two hours last night).

And, Ken, yes, just go.

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