On cruel optimism

On cruel optimism

Sep 4, 2022·

4 min read

If you're a frequent reader of this blog, you'd know that I was reading Stolen Focus last month and among all the things it taught and showed me, I want to talk about one today: cruel optimism.

You must've come across self-help books like "How I cured my xxx and you can too!" or perhaps articles like "This one lesson changed my life, here's how it'll change yours too". How do you feel after reading this if you're someone who's suffering from xxx? You feel hopeful: you get a ray of hope among all the darkness. Unfortunately, sometimes it doesn't all work out. Something that works for the author doesn't work for you and you feel worse-off than you were before. You start getting thoughts like "It worked for them, why is not working for me? Is something wrong inside of me? Is my version of xxx worser and crueler?"

While it may be true that your version of xxx is crueler or worser, those feelings usually don't help you anyways. We are all unique human beings and it is only natural that what worked for someone else won't work for you. When people think that because it was easy in their experience it will be easy for others too, they are making a grave mistake. Sharing your experience is one thing but discounting others' experiences is ignorance.

In Stolen Focus, Johann talked about this in the context of "Indistractible" by Nir Eyal. Nir writes about how easy it is to take control of your attention using built-in tools. I agree, it is easy but then by doing this you discount the challenges others face when doing the same. Peer pressure to remain on social media, social exclusion in offline life and other things make the move complicated. Nir takes away the focus (pun not intended) from the real problem here: social media companies aim to capitalize on our brain's weaknesses for profit. There's another reason why Nir is being cruelly optimistic:


Nir is also the author of a book on how to build products that hook people onto them and that means he already loses some credibility and besides, what worked for him will likely not work for people who do not even know how the algorithms work!

The point I am getting to here is that it is worthless to think that you can apply someone else's advice 1:1 to make your life better. This is one of the paradoxes actually: the more advice you get, the less confident you are about your choice. I think we call this Analysis Paralysis: the more factors you consider, the more paralyzed you are in your decision making. I experienced this first-hand earlier when I was looking for prospective colleges to apply to in the future. I tried considering every aspect possible and instead of getting a bigger picture of the colleges I looked for, I ended up getting a garbled picture that was all over the place. I felt disempowered instead of empowered. I scoured reddit for opinions but I also learnt another important lesson that day: while reddit does have honest opinions, those can sometimes be very negative.

That was a stressful day but as Matt Haig says, "whenever you feel like you're at your lowest, just realize that it will only get better from here" and I did end up finding some worthwhile places (for those in my position, I would recommend checking out Borderless.

Now, I don't 100% blame the authors who publish such books. You might do this unintentionally: your intention was to help others by sharing your experience with the problem. I think the problem here arises when we fail to recognize where the main problem is. It is when we oversimplify & wrongfully generalize something, and then promote that view as the ultimate one, that we make a mistake.

I don't want anyone to not share their experience just because they fear they will end up being cruelly optimistic, far from it. I would love to hear your opinions on this because I still feel I am lacking something here and that's stopping me from grasping the issue.

As always, hope this article got you thinking and you learnt something today :)