Tim Knight: Optimist

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On my bookshelf, you will find a series of small books which are in The Portable Curmudgeon family. These are not recent purchases. In fact, I started getting them as they came to market way back in 1992. That was, by definition, when I was – – ya know – – younger.

Years earlier, back in my teens, one of my favorite books was Paul Fussell’s Class. Here is an image of Professor Fussell, which I think captures his temperament quite well:

For much of my life, I’ve wondered about these tendencies. Why am I drawn to the critical, the negative, and the cynical? Was I just born grouchy? Or, as some kinder people might put it, am I an old soul? Why aren’t I sunny and cheerful like some people? In short, am I innately a pessimist?

I was thinking about this the other day, when a nearly thirty year old memory came back to me. It was back in late 1993, early in Prophet’s second year of existence. The company had been burglarized in August (those interested in my company’s history might enjoy the documentary I made here). We had very little money. My business partner and I weren’t getting along. Times were tough.

I remember one day, some minor tidbit of good news had come in. It was so trivial, I can’t even remember what it was, except given the circumstances, I’m sure it was something very minor. My comment at the time was something I said a lot back then. I said: “That’s encouraging.”

My partner at the time looked at me and said something I remember to this day: “Tim, with all due respect, you find everything encouraging.”

At the time, I felt a little bad, because it sounded like what Rick was saying was that my assessment of the situation was meaningless, since I was trying to cling to any little bit of news as something positive to help keep pushing us forward. And, now that I think about it, his own grim assessment of our situation was surely what led him, just weeks later, to offer me his entire stake in the business (we were equal partners) for the sum of $12,500. I took him up on that offer, which I’m sure he thought I was a fool to accept. Let’s just say it was the best investment of my entire life. That $12,500 was worth millions later.

But you know what: he was right. I do find almost everything to be encouraging. And why? Because I have to. The evidence bears it out.

I’ve been married 31 years. Marriages aren’t easy. If they were, then you wouldn’t have a gargantuan divorce industry. You have to be an optimistic to be married and be strong when the times call for it.

We have children. Raising children isn’t easy. Indeed, the act of having children at all (consciously, at least) is itself an act of optimism. No one but a sadist would bring a new life into the world if he thought the world sucked. That was one of the reasons abortions were so incredibly prevalent in the Soviet Union. Their women did not want to bring babies into such a shitty place. So the USSR remained short of human capital for decades.

I have started businesses. Some people think I’m successful. Let’s consider my dazzling success.

I started a magazine about personal robotics which failed. I opened up a robot store and sunk a year of my life into that. It was a complete failure.

I wrote an entire screenplay which will probably never see the light of day.

I’ve started a novel and realized just into the second chapter that I might not be capable of good character development. Who knows if it’ll ever get done.

I spent a huge amount of time and money on a project called House Safari which was a complete dud. Absolute failure. I have been let go, in one form or another, from almost every “real’ job I ever had.

I have started two failed financial funds.

In fact, looking back, I strongly suspect that if you put all the time together I’ve spent on things which either went absolutely nowhere or ended in total failure, that sum would be measured not in weeks or months, but in years. Years of my life for nothing. Absolutely nothing except wasted time and wasted money. Catastrophe. Disaster. Failure.

So success has been the exception, not the rule.

And what kind of person could have gone through all of the above (and there’s lots more failure, believe me, than revealed here) and still get up every day, eager for what’s ahead? Not just an optimist. But a wild-eyed, crazy-in-the-head, doe-eyed optimistic madman, that’s who. It wouldn’t’ be possible, otherwise.

A lot of the things I say and I write may come off as grumpy old man stuff, but it has only become clear to me lately the source of all this. It isn’t because I’m a pessimist. It isn’t because I’m a curmudgeon. I’m not. It’s something else entirely.

I’m just disappointed.

And that is the irony of this entire situation. My view is that the gee-whiz, aww-shucks, everything’s-gonna-work-out people out there are confusing genuine happiness with their refusal to actually examine anything. They’re not discerning. And they’re not critical. And by critical I don’t mean in a “this movie sucks” kind of way. I mean critical as in the capacity to have a critical eye. To examine, consider, think, and conclude.

Only a person with low expectations could look around and feel satisfaction. And a person with such low expectations is, I believe, far more truly pessimistic than someone like me. I believe we are, collectively, capable of so much better. So when any circumstances falls short of the mark, which is almost always, I will be dismayed. Thus, disappointment is misinterpreted as pessimism.

I will say one more thing about my stealthy sunny nature: it is resilient. I have a fundamental belief in the decency of humans. I am a strident and opinionated person, and in spite of that, well north of 99% of my interactions with others, be it in comments, via email, on Twitter, or in person, are positive

But I am no different from from others in the fact that a single mean-spirited comment or email can bring me down, and the five hundred pleasant comments shrink when faced with the one nasty one. It’s a shame that the human brain gives these such unequal weightings.

I offer this self-examination because I found this revelation to be surprising, and given the similar disposition that a few of you in this corner of the Internet possess, I thought you would perhaps find some insight for yourselves with my own retelling.

Thanks for being one of the good ones out there. We need each other.