Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Optimist v. Pessimist

At a recent faculty meeting, as my attention drifted just a tiny bit at one point, I decided that the faculty evenly divides into optimists and pessimists, and that this classification scheme is nearly perfect -- far better than grouping the faculty by related research disciplines, age, gender, geographic origin etc. The only thing that keeps my classification scheme from being completely perfect is the existence of a colleague who will take a contrary stance just for the sake of being contrary (or for prolonging the enriching faculty meeting experience?).

In the specific context of faculty meetings and administrative issues, I am an optimist. The pessimists have a useful purpose, but mostly they are annoying, particularly in long meetings. I readily admit that optimists can be annoying as well, but at least we want to get things done instead of listing all the reasons why we shouldn't do anything except maybe sit in a conference room and talk for hours.

When my daughter was younger, we made up a game called optimist-pessimist. I would say something like "It's raining. There will probably be thunder and lightning and strong winds that will destroy flowers and scare the bunnies", or "It's raining. I bet there will be a rainbow, and birds will come out and splash in the puddles" and then she would say "optimist" or "pessimist". It was a stupid game, but it's amazing what entertains a 3 year old. Although we didn't delve into the wonderful world of department administration for examples, I bet she could have correctly guessed the label to statements such as "Let's not talk to people in that other department because they won't be interested in anything we are doing."

I don't always do well in debates with my pessimistic elders (the senior senior professors) because they like to frame the discussion in terms of their superior knowledge acquired over their many years in academia, whereas I, a junior senior professor, am naive. Perhaps there is a fine line between being optimistic and being naive, but mostly I think they are trying to undermine my arguments with contentless blather. I could do without that.

An entire department full of optimists might be a bit terrifying, though.


Ms.PhD said...

It's funny how timely this post was for me. I had a conversation today with someone I think of as a hopeless optimist, which I think is what most people picture, when in fact there are those like you who are more practical optimists (or at least, so I think based on your blog?).

I like practical optimists in meetings. I hate having a hopeless optimist as an advisor, but I worry because this seems to be the most successful phenotype among the PIs I know. It makes me think no department would want me... but based on your post, maybe there's hope if one of the old farty pessimists dies off?

But I think pessimists are invaluable to have on committees, because if your committee is too optimistic, a couple of years down the line, all the complaints will start bubbling up about what you should have done differently (if only you had some pessimists there to tell you at the time...)

Doug Natelson said...

At various institutions I've been, I've noticed a good division into conservatives (in the classic sense of the word: "All change is bad. We've always done things this way. That new idea will never work. We tried something like that once and it was a disaster.") and those that want to try new things (progressives, I suppose). Too much change can mean a lack of focus and direction, of course, so there has to be some balance. If you get a chance, it's fun to read the little companion volume that comes with the 'definitive and extended' edition of the Feynman lectures on physics. When Leighton and Sands wanted to reform the undergrad physics curriculum at Cal Tech, the response from their chairman was classic conservatism as defined above.

A said...

To make a solely tangential remark...

It seems to be a sort of Russelicious paradox, as believing that you are an optimist in a room full of pessimists (seeing as how that's a not-so-fun place for an optimist to be), means that you are
at least somewhat of a pessimist.