I just finished Michael Lewis’ new book The Undoing Project – on the trailblazing Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their life’s work. It’s certainly no Moneyball, or Shoe Dog, but it’s a good read.

And nestled in between the fascinating origins of behavioral economics and Big Data, I landed on a pretty simple yet powerful passage:

“Amos was not merely an optimist; Amos willed himself to be optimistic, because he had decided pessimism was stupid. When you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice, Amos liked to say. Once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.

At the beginning of a New Year, or new semester, or new job, it’s easier to be optimistic. Easier to make a resolution or two. Jot down a list of goals. But it’s tougher when you’re down…

In 2008, just days after SpaceX had suffered it’s third straight rocket launch failure, Elon Musk was interviewed by Wired’s Carl Hoffman. Musk was asked, “How do you maintain your optimism?” and he replied, “Optimism, pessimism, fuck that; we’re going to make it happen.”

Here’s what I definitely don’t have – Musk’s brilliance or Tversky’s brilliance. There are very few that have walked this earth (or Mars, in Musk’s dreams) with their vision or intellectual prowess. But I can’t help but agreeing with Tversky that optimism can be willed. It’s not off limits. Not reserved for those with a certain IQ, who graduated from a certain school, possess a certain title, or sit in a certain office. Doesn’t cost a penny.

And maybe optimism is contagious, like a strong winter cold. It’s easy to be up when we’re feeling fit, well rested, at the start of the year, like a big smiley face on a sticky note. It’s much more difficult when we’re vulnerable, down, or sick. But those are the times when optimism is most important.

So if Tversky’s or Musk’s words aren’t quite infectious enough on their own, they are at least a platform from which to build. To build that will that Tversky possessed. I’ll be keeping my eyes open for others like them – looking to catch a bit of optimism, and will a bit of it too.

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