“Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year” – I, Pencil by Leonard Read, 1958
In his essay, Read explains that even though billions of pencils are produced every year, not one person can make one. In fact, it takes millions of people to make a pencil, from the loggers who cut down the cedar trees, to those who mine the graphite, to the chemists who make the lacquer, and the truckers who transport the materials from one place to another.
Read asserts, “There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how.” Yet, regardless, there are billions of pencils produced every year. The same goes for more complex products like computers, smartphones and dining chairs.
Why do I bring up “I, Pencil”? I recently read Matt Ridley’s uplifting book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves which focuses on how the world is a much better place now than it was a century ago. And, “I, Pencil” fits right into his theory.
Ridley argues that as a society we are constantly building on an exchange of ideas. With all other species, as the species becomes more populous, it become less prosperous and eventually die out. People are the only group that has become more prosperous as they have become more populous. This is because they build on each other’s ideas. Even the seemingly insignificant pencil represents an exchange of ideas and collaboration on the part of millions of people. He writes, “At some point, human intelligence became collective and cumulative in a way that happened to no other animal.” For this reason Ridley believes we should live in a state of rational optimism.
“Rational optimism,” he says, “holds that the world will pull out of the current crisis because of the way that markets in goods, services, and ideas allow human beings to exchange and specialize honestly for the betterment of all. So this is not a book of unthinking praise or condemnation of all markets, but it is an inquiry into how the market process of exchange and specialization is older and fairer than many think and gives a vast reason for optimism about the future of the human race. Above all, it is a book about the benefits of change…”
He offers a sunny view of the world: “First, I need to convince you that human progress has, on balance, been a good thing, and that, despite the constant temptation to moan, the world is a good a place to live as it has ever been for the average human being – even now in a deep recession. That it is richer, healthier, and kinder too, as much because of commerce as despite it.”
Does optimism always work?
In American culture, there is a large emphasis put on optimism. We are told that if we think positively things will work out. For a lot of people (like Ridley), this type of outlook is beneficial and healthy. However, optimism is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Positive thinking works for some, but not for all. For people who have anxiety, optimism can be very difficult and unproductive. Instead, anxious people can harness their anxiety and use it in order to ensure that they do succeed.
This approach is what Julie Norem, the author of The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, calls defensive pessimism. She explains that defensive pessimism encompasses an entire process by which negative thinking transformed anxiety into action.”
“Don’t worry, it will all work out” does not always come true. Worrying and preparing yourself for the worst can help. And that is exactly what defensive pessimists do. Before going into a stressful situation, they set low expectations for themselves and then follow up with a list of all the things that can go wrong. Once they have figured out all of the bad things that can happen, they can prepare to prevent them or to prepare to deal with them when they occur. This gives those with anxiety a sense of control.
In reality, roughly thirty percent of Americans are defensive pessimists, and then tend to also be highly successful. Their belief in the fear of negative outcomes tends to motivate them to perform better in the future.
Register now for a Social Thinking workshop by Michelle Garcia Winner on November 16. Please call Mrs. Schonfeld at 718-382-5437 for more information.Rifka Schonfeld