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The 8 Principles

THE LEAGUE OF
PRAGMATIC OPTIMISTS

Principle 1: Have an unashamed optimism of ambition


All pragmatic optimists, unsurprisingly, have an unashamed optimism of ambition about
our future. To clarify, this is not simple wishful thinking that things will work out alright
in the end, its optimism specifically tied to a goal and a conviction that that goal can be
reached with enough passion and hard work. It is an optimism that something can and
should be done to steer things in a positive direction.
In short, pragmatic optimists dont feel embarrassed to say that things could be better.
They have no qualms about imagining an improved world and advocating for it, no
matter how much derision they may receive at the hands of the cynical. In short they are
not ashamed to dream good dreams. After all, Martin Luther King did not stand on the
steps of the Lincoln memorial and say, I have a five point plan. And his famous Ive
Been to the Mountaintop speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis painted a vivid
picture of a journey towards a world without racism already well in motion.
Articulating these goals brings the first test for the pragmatic optimist. With cynicism
being such an easy weapon for their opponents, pragmatic optimists will soon have their
ambition, and indeed their character, questioned. They will be accused of naivety,
arrogance and stupidity, possibly all at once. And this character assassination wont let
up. In all walks of life, but especially in large organisations, pragmatic optimists rarely
triumph because of the prevailing culture, but in spite of it. The irony is that the very people
trying to discourage or neuter innovators will later, in a convenient re-writing of history,
offer up the achievements of these pesky optimists as proof that their organisation (or
nation) has always embraced creativity and forward-thinking.
As a pragmatic optimist many people will tell you your dreams are trivial. But they are
profound. Quite simply, if youre not prepared to dream something extraordinary youll
never achieve anything extraordinary.
As Helen Keller said, No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed an
uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.

Principle 2: Involve yourself in projects that are


bigger than you
The philosopher Daniel Dennett says that one of the occupational hazards of being a
philosopher is that you get asked difficult questions at parties. Being solicited over drinks
for free consultancy is, of course, commonplace. If youre a doctor youll be asked to
pass opinion on a dodgy knee. Plumbers are gently probed for advice on a tricky u-bend.
As a comedian I was invariably asked to comment on this great idea for a sitcom Ive come up
with and these days social gatherings are replete with aspiring writers wanting an
introduction to my literary agent. But if youre a philosopher its worse. As you reach for
another beer you might be asked, Go on then, whats consciousness? Another recurring
question Daniel (and probably most philosophers) get confronted with is, Whats the
definition of happiness?
Luckily he has an answer and its a good one: Find something more important than you are and
dedicate your life to it.
All pragmatic optimists have a project that is bigger than they are. By contrast, people
who have a project that is the same size as themselves are invariably miserable and
tedious company. Once youve got a bigger car/ nicer house/ television bigger than God
whats left? As so many find out, eventually the answer is a nagging emptiness
accompanied by the thought, Surely there must be more to life than this?
Those with something bigger than themselves generally derive a deep-in-the-core
happiness from whatever that is. Its a happiness that comes from a feeling you have a
place in the world. A bigger than me project can be your family, your religion, military
service or a scientific calling. You dont have to agree with another persons bigger than
me project but it is true that people who have them are usually more driven, positive and
able to get things done as a result. This is a happiness different from the passing
pleasures of a good night out or great joke, and it will not manifest itself as merriment,
but its motivating power is fundamental to the pragmatic optimist.
This principle has no moral dimension. Hitler had a bigger than me project as did many
of his followers. Its perfectly possible that a bigger-than-me project could manifest itself
as an abandonment of self to the fascist mass, just as much as it could be a worthy cause
that allows you self-determination. People who get bad stuff done have many of the
same guiding principles as people who get good stuff done. The crucial point is if you
want to get anything done its important to keep your eye on the big picture and the long
game.

Principle 3: Engineer serendipity


Parents often comment on the startling creativity of their children. Pablo Picasso
famously remarked, Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we
grow up. Ill go further. Every child is an artist, yes, but also a scientist, engineer and
entrepreneur too. Young children benefit from not having suffered long years in an
educational system that splits the world into discrete subjects, and so their minds are
still free to span the silos that industrialism will try everything it can to encourage them
into during the following years.
There isnt a theory of innovation that doesnt acknowledge that new ideas arise when
two (or more) existing ideas smash into each other (the film-maker Kirby Ferguson sums
it up by saying everything is a re-mix) and that game-changing innovations are usually
the result of two seemingly unrelated disciplines getting in a tangle.
Pragmatic optimists are therefore serendipity engineers. They find ways to smash
themselves (and others) into new ideas exposing themselves to different thoughts,
philosophies and approaches. Somewhere in the ensuing mental car crash the right
collision of ideas will provide them with another tool in their quest to make the world
better. In fact, to the pragmatic optimist this becomes second nature. Creativity is just
connecting things, Steve Jobs told Wired in 1996. When you ask creative people how
they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didnt really do it, they just saw
something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. So, if innovation is, as Matt Ridley
puts it, ideas having sex then pragmatic optimists are intellectual sluts, happily
throwing themselves into forums where they arent experts, reading outside of their
existing frames of reference, promoting debate and dialogue and finding joy in the
accidents that might frustrate or annoy others. This is why that ideas-powerhouse the
MIT media lab is full of glass walls, so that everybody can see into everybody elses lab,
and why the head of MITs Smart Cities group Bill Mitchell designs buildings to ensure
people bump into each other.
There is a much overused maxim in corporations, that creativity is all about thinking
outside the box. Pragmatic optimists know that you cant think outside the box unless
you get outside the box, maintaining that spirit of happy exploration that characterises
childhood.

Principle 4: You are what you do, not what


you intend to do
Many people are convinced they are someone else. In fact all of us at some point or
another have told ourselves that were not really the miserable, grumpy, cynical,
obstructive or unreasonable person we appear to be its just that, right now, there are
some extenuating circumstances. Your boss is a Nazi. You had a difficult childhood.
There isnt the budget. You dont have the time. Its not your problem. We like to
imagine we could change the world (or our corner of it at least) if circumstances were
different. Inside our heads we are convinced that we are kind, forward-thinking, engaged
members of society who, given half the chance, would be working to make the world a
better place.
Pragmatic optimists take a different view, which is quite simply this: you are what you do.
That miserable, grumpy, cynical, obstructive or unreasonable person you appear to be
is who you actually are as far as the rest of world is concerned. Pragmatic optimists are not
interested in what you might do if your circumstances or internal dialogue were different.
They hold the opinion that you do what you can in the moment youre in. Its a view
shared by pragmatic optimists across history from Ghandi (You must be the change you
want to see in the world) to Richard Branson (Screw it, lets do it).
For this reason you will notice that pragmatic optimists, the people who get good stuff
done are busy. Very busy. In fact youll hear others often remark, I dont know how
they do so much. The reason is they fill the time most of us use to procrastinate with
hours spent getting on with stuff. And the results can be extraordinary. As one of their
number, Benjamin Franklin, founding father of a nation said, If you want something
done, ask a busy person. The principle applies equally, of course, to fixing that tap, or
being kinder to your partner. A pragmatic optimist might therefore ask, what are you
waiting for?

Principle 5: Making mistakes is OK, but not


trying is irresponsible
Once upon a time two rival firms were trying to do the same thing; namely working out
how to integrate a particular enhancement made possible by new technology into their
(competing) products.
Both companies set up engineering teams. Both failed. Company A disbanded their team
and grumbled about the whole fiasco. Company B gave their team another chance and
they failed. In fact they continued to fail for several months until, finally, they cracked it.
For the time they remained the engineers at Company A were, as one director put it,
effectively wandering around the place with the word loser written on their
foreheads. At Company B, their counterparts are still seen as creative mavericks.
Our society, based on the model of industrialism and specialism, tells us that mistakes are
to be avoided at all costs. Mistakes are mocked in the classroom and get you fired in the
workplace. Yet deep down inside we know that making mistakes is one of the
indispensible mechanisms of learning, and a defining characteristic of the human
experience. Phil Oakey, that well-known metaphysical philosopher and member of The
Human League famously opined, Im only human, born to make mistakes. In fact mistakes
are essential catalysts in the innovation process. Keith Richards, guitarist and notable
anthropological theorist, was once asked how he came up with all those amazing guitar
riffs. His answer? He just starts playing until he makes the right mistake. In other words
hes optimistic he will create something good by virtue of getting something wrong.
And yet, faced with the desire to make the world better, many of us are stifled by the
terror of the mistakes we might make and this dumbfounds us into inaction. Author
Kathryn Schulz, in her exploration of error, summed it up nicely: Our love of being right is
best understood as our fear of being wrong.
Pragmatic optimists deal with that fear by knowing they almost certainly will get
something wrong, and thats not only OK, its fundamental. They are not paralysed by
the worry of making a cock-up. They know that the only way to see the right way to do
things is with the benefit of hindsight, something you can never possess when you start
the journey, so its pointless to expect such clarity at the outset. As author and
entrepreneur Seth Godin says: The way to get unstuck is to start down the wrong path, right
now.
Pragmatic optimists therefore follow the principle that making mistakes is OK, its not
trying that is irresponsible.

Principle 6: Commit to evidence also known as Think


like an engineer, not like a politician
Some people hold the view that the root cause of most of our problems is irrational
religious belief. But any such attempt to take the rational high ground is fraught with the
risk of hubris. The nearest place to see someone who cherry picks evidence and is ruled
more often by emotion than reason is in the mirror. The most outwardly rational of us
harbour a festering pit of assumption, un-evidenced opinion and prejudice.
So the scientific method and critical thinking skills are crucial providing a framework of
checks and balances, putting filters around our bug-ridden brains so that what eventually
dribbles out is something approaching the truth. Lets be honest, science has been
astonishingly pragmatic and one can only admire how this cognitive safety harness has
continually come up trumps for its irrational creators.
Pragmatic optimists therefore know that a commitment to evidence is key, regardless of
your beliefs, your favourite ideology or accepted wisdom. This principle is perhaps best
summed up as: be more like an engineer and less like a politician.
Think about it. Engineers do not build bridges from a left-wing, right-wing perspective.
They build them from an evidence-based perspective and, over time, bridge building gets
better. Politicians often make their decisions from an ideological standpoint, and if the
evidence fits well (or can be made to fit) thats nice, and over time as Im sure youve
noticed our political system has got worse.
If you do something useful the politicians will come calling soon enough. There is a story,
the truth of which is debated, that when Michael Faraday was asked by the British
Chancellor of the Exchequer what the practical value of electricity was he replied, One
day sir, you may tax it.

Principle 7: You will lose a lot (in the beginning)


also know as Play the long game
The legendary computer engineer Howard H. Aitken once advised, Dont worry about
people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, youll have to ram them down peoples throats.
Pragmatic optimists understand that the beginning of many endeavours involves being
told youre mad, bad and dangerous to know. More practically they know that they will
lose. A lot. At least to start with.
Pragmatic optimists see their Bigger than me projects (see Principle 2) as long games
with many rounds. Imagine 10 rounds per project. In round 1 they are resigned to the
fact that 9 out of 10 people will think theyre nave, the wrong person for the job or too
idealistic. The task in round 1 is not to try and win over everyone, but one out of ten.
Round two is almost as bruising. 90% of the world thinks youre crazy, and the task here
is to convince 1 out of 9 that youre not (although you do now have the help of the brave
soul who saw your point in the last round). And so it repeats with round 3, where 80%
of those you talk to are against you and you have to reduce that number to 70%. The
rounds get progressively easier but its worth noting that up until round five youre losing
more often than youre winning, which can be awfully dispiriting.
In fact, if you dont play the long game you can become completely dispirited and give up,
because you might confuse round one for the entire game. Despite your enthusiasm for
an idea, almost everyone in the world thinks youre nuts and tells you so. Clearly youve
misjudged things horribly. What on earth were you thinking? In fact, the number of
rejections is a metric to telling you where you are on the journey, and how long it might
take. Kicked in the nuts 7 out of 10 times this week? Well done, youre in round three.
So, only two more rounds to go until the world starts to turn your way.
As US trade unionist Nicholas Klein said, First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And
then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you.

Principle 8: Police your own cynicism


The final principle of pragmatic optimists is easy to say and hard to do. It is simply
this: try to kick out your cynicism.
Its hard to do because cynicism has become embedded in our society and is even held
up as wisdom. But there is nothing wise, or even likeable about cynicism. Cynicism, in
fact, is a bit like smoking. You may think it looks cool but its really bad for you and
worse still, its really bad for everyone around you. For the cynic, a better world is a little
too hard to imagine, and therefore not worth doing anything towards. Whats worse is
that cynicism pretends to be your friend, by warning you against the harsh realities of
going up against the world. Its almost as if its saying, but I dont want you to get hurt.
But making the world better is a contact sport. We dont tell rugby players not to go into
a scrum because the other team want the ball, do we?
As such cynicism is both a recipe and an excuse for laziness and we should have no time
for it. But its hard because it is so seductive - an easy and plausible excuse for keeping
your head down. How many times do we tell ourselves its just not worth the effort, that
were foolish to even try and make a change? Or that the person with the crazy idea for
improving things you just met will probably get squashed? Daily. This is the moment to
have a stern word with yourself because cynicism is the ultimate enemy of getting
anything done. It is the ultimate enemy of a better future.
Can all eight principles (including this last one) be encapsulated in a single idea?
Perhaps.
If it comes down to one thing its probably this: if you want to be a pragmatic optimist:

Judge your value not by what you own, but by what


you create.