Optimism and evidence

Optimism and evidence

Part one is about optimism

Many would have us believe that it is easy to be an optimist.

All you have to do is believe (in) yourself. If you say positive things most of the time, catch yourself when something negative sneaks in and smile a lot, then you are good to go.

Believe and your shoulders set themselves back and your chest rises.

“Yes we can” you will scream. And there are hundreds of Youtube win videos that attest to this power. People are awesome indeed.

Pulses of positivity do not require any substance to back them up. There is no need because optimism is often killed by the truth. There are few facts in favour of running a successful business, seeing your team win the league, or the world surviving intact the activities of 7 billion humans. Such matters of fact are not what optimism is about. If you accepted the likelihood of winning the lottery you would never buy a ticket.

Optimists have no need for facts. This is not how it works for them. They just believe it to be so. And that is enough. No matter what the circumstance, for innate optimists, the glass is always half full and Schrodinger’s cat is alive.

It is actually a remarkable thing.

In spite of evidence to the contrary and especially where evidence is lacking, the optimist has hope and drinks deeply from the glass.

Part two is about evidence

As a scientist I know the logic that makes the likelihood of a lottery win minuscule. I also know that facts are not always in your favour.

No matter how good a snowboarder you are, sooner or later the half pipe will claim you – speed, ice and many moving parts fixed to some plywood and fiberglass is enough evidence.

Yet for years I have laboured to generate environmental evidence, reliable facts about the way the natural world works, with the naïve belief it would be useful.

Today I am not so sure.

My conviction in the value of evidence is shaken if evidence erodes optimism. It flawed completely if optimists mostly ignore the facts. If the glass half empty people don’t want to hear any evidence because it depresses them even more and the glass half full people are too busy getting on with fulfilling their hope, it means that nobody is listening.

Deaf ears indeed.

Upsize

Upsize

There are thousands of books on positivity. Every week new ones emerge that squeeze every last nuance out of get up and go. Amazon lists 261 titles under positivity and over 220,000 in the ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ category. The concept must sell.

One of the common themes is to think big. Upsize your ambition as well as your fries and truly exceptional things can happen. Your thinking, the ideas you can conjure and your cholesterol levels can all expand if you upsize enough.

It is tempting.

I had great plans for a past venture of mine, Biotrack Australia, that monitored environmental performance for a fee. There were visions of expansion from a few local government, research, and mining company contracts to global dominance. Fuelled by much hard work with some great staff, the technology improved along with the business. We even set up a branch in Botswana (long story).

I began to imagine a neon sign atop a high-rise in North Sydney beaming out the company logo across the iconic harbour.

Then the cash ran out.

Instead of expansion to the world, Biotrack downsized. It turns out that the fees did not match the level of interest potential clients had in finding out just how well their environment was performing. And you can see why. Unless a company has to report its externalities they have no need to measure them. Knowledge has to make a material difference to the bottom line and even then decision makers need to feel the immediate benefit of investing in it.

So Biotrack spent what we had left on an all out search for clients who would make money from knowing their environmental performance and, well, failed to find any. Soon after the technology and IP were sold for a modest amount.

No neon this time.

The post mortem was brief. We decided that we’d experienced an all too familiar problem for commercial start-ups where some success prompted growth in advance of the cashflow to support it. In short, we were undercapitalised. Our resources did not match the grand vision.

This was a satisfactory explanation at the time. One that did not undermine the positive grand vision.

And given that nobody has ever won the lottery without a ticket, we felt we had given it a fair go but just didn’t have the necessary luck.

A decade on and I’m reflecting again on this notion of positivity. I suspect that in our line of business — the one that is trying to provide information and knowledge of environmental performance for a fee now taken up by Alloporus Environmental — no amount of positivity is enough. It is not the same as, say, a golf tournament where there are 50 people with enough skill to win it, and one winner on the day. Rarely is the winner the one who didn’t think they could.

No, I now believe that we are in a game without a winner. And in such a situation not even a shelf full of positivity is enough.

I am convinced that knowledge is neither required or desired, especially when it comes to the environment.

As an environmental knowledge provider you can think as big as you like, imagine the neon signs, and read all the books, but it will make no difference for there is no tournament there to be won and no amount of upsizing can create one.