The Optimism Bias — Blindly believe that things will get better
When I wrote my first two novels, I dedicated many months to research; reading for countless hours, and interviewing people in several countries.
I took a new approach when I wrote The Little Voice: I looked within myself, and then wrote a personal story. A deeply personal story.
I asked myself, “Who am I?”
Not, “What have I become?” Not, “What am I supposed to be?” But, “Who was I, before the world told me who I should be? Who am I, really, deep down?”
Perhaps this seems like a ludicrous question. Perhaps it seems absurd. But, for me, it was an important question to ask.
I had forgotten who I really was.
Or rather, I should say, other people had made me forget.
Let’s start at the beginning, for that’s where all good stories start.
In the beginning, there was school…
I never really wanted to go to school. Okay, some days were better than I others. I appreciate that I was taught how to read and write, add and subtract. But I never liked being stuck inside a classroom all day, every day. I wanted to be outside, playing. I dreamed about becoming a footballer. I considered it my destiny to become a footballer. I longed to strap up my boots and hone my skills.
But I couldn’t. I was made to sit inside, behind a desk, wearing a generic shirt and tie. That made me feel frustrated. It made me feel angsty. And so I acted out.
Sometimes, to burn off my excess energy, I’d throw a temper-tantrum. I’d run around the room. Once I ran over the desks! Once, I escaped! I left the school and made a dash for freedom, before being captured and dragged back to the headmaster’s office. I got suspended for that.
Whenever I acted out, I got punished. My teachers told me to behave. I saw my classmates behave, and I myself wanted to be like them — to fit in. And my parents always took my teachers’ side, which reinforced the message. They moulded me, using a process called Operant Conditioning, which I have written about here.
Not only did my parents encourage me to behave, they also gently nudged me away from my dream. They filled up my calendar with things like Cheder (Jewish School), judo lessons and swimming lessons, so I’d have less time to play football. They sent me to schools which didn’t even play my favourite sport. They lambasted me whenever my football damaged the flowers in our garden. They promoted academic attainment ahead of sporting achievement.
I never stopped wanting to be a footballer, not deep down. I was always conscious of that. But I stopped believing I could make it. I stopped believing that I should try. I fell in line. I excelled in school, where I never really wanted to excel, but I failed to achieve my one true dream.
Having graduated from university, I was left in No Man’s Land. I had a good education to my name, but that was useless to me; it was never going to help me to become a footballer. I was too old, and nowhere near good enough for that. I could have used my degree to get a different job, of course, but I didn’t want a different job. I only wanted to be a footballer. And so I found myself in a quandary; stranded between the impossible and the undesirable.
I took three gap years in a row, to try to get my head straight. Then, whilst travelling around the Indian Himalayas, I asked myself that question for the first time: Who am I? Who am I, really, deep down?
And then I answered my own question. I, dear reader, realised that I was a footballer!
Not to the outside world, of course. To anyone else’s eyes, I was a sub-par Sunday League amateur, who had never even come close to playing a professional game. But, in my mind, I was a footballer. In my heart and soul, I was a footballer. I was the same little boy who had spent hours dreaming about winning the FA Cup.
I returned to the UK, completed a masters in sports business management, and held a series of short-lived positions within the game. I figured that if I couldn’t work for a football club as a player, I could work for one on the business side of operations. I could help to grow the fanbase, to grow the club as a whole, which would provide the funds needed for the team to prosper on the pitch. Together, we could win the FA Cup, just as I’d always dreamed.
It didn’t quite work out. Although I did achieve tangible results at both the football clubs I worked for, increasing memberships and attendances, I was never rewarded. I had to move around the country, away from family and friends, in order to find work. And, in order to succeed, I had to work long, long hours. But I only every earned a meagre wage, well below the national average. I never made it onto a board of directors. I received two small pay rises, but I was never given a promotion.
In hoping to be rewarded for my achievements, to be promoted, I think I must have been suffering from the “Optimism Bias”. It’s a concept I introduce in The Little Voice. Here’s what I wrote:
“(The Optimism Bias is) the tendency, which most of us have, to overestimate the likelihood of experiencing good events and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing bad events.
In the Western World, for example, about two out of five married couples get divorced. Yet when newlyweds are told this and then asked about the likelihood of them getting divorced, they don’t say there’s a two in five chance. They don’t give the rational answer. They say there’s a zero percent chance. Zero! Zilch! Nada! Those people ignore the facts and let optimism cloud their judgement.”
It’s a defence mechanism. I mean, who would want to admit that their future is going to be one big expanse of drudgery, boredom and pain? If you thought like that you’d kill yourself! We need to tell ourselves that things will be okay. That things will get better. That it’ll all be alright in the end. And, fuelled by that sort of optimism, we may even be propelled to go out and make things better in reality.
But, unfortunately, there is a down side to optimism too:
“Optimism can encourage us to act irrationally; to pursue unrealistic goals or continue on in jobs and relationships which make us miserable. We delude ourselves into believing that sunny days are just around the corner.
Society encourages this. We’re told; ‘You can get it if you really want it. You just have to try, try, try!’ And we believe it. We work our arses off. We suffer, in the wildly optimistic hope that we’ll be rewarded with a better job, a better salary and a better life, at some mythical point in the future.
In this sense, optimism can be a disease. And I think it’s a disease which we all suffer from. This optimism-epidemic, this blind-faith pandemic, dulls our rational capabilities and encourages us to accept our unhappy lives.
At least that’s what I did.”
It’s what I did for a number of years. I kept on working hard, moving around the country, accepting low wages, and working unsocial hours. I saw that I was achieving results. Optimism told me that those results would be rewarded.
But I wasn’t rewarded. So, in the end, I had to look inside myself once more. I had to ask myself that question for the second time: Who am I? Who am I, really, deep down?
Well, I had always believed I would write a novel, one day. I had written bits and bobs as a youth. Perhaps, I reasoned, I should write a novel?
But, in re-engaging with my inner-child, I realised that there was more to it than that. I remembered that little boy; made to sit inside, behind a desk, in his shirt and tie. Feeling frustrated. Feeling angsty. Acting out.
I realised that I was still that little boy. That I was still frustrated. That I still wanted to act out. I had repressed that urge, bottled it up, but it hadn’t gone away.
At work, I was made to do whatever my bosses told me, even when I disagreed with them. I still wanted to act out. Yes, I stayed silent, but that was only because I was told off whenever I questioned authority.
I hated the inter-departmental rivalries. Accounts had a horrible system of “re-charges”, through which different departments profited off of others’ hard work. I hated that. I wanted to act out. But I repressed that urge.
Some people seemed to be loved for doing the smallest of things; for making hot drinks for everyone in the office, saying “good morning” in an exuberant manner, and getting involved in office night outs. But people like me weren’t loved for actually being successful. I hated that.
I wanted to act out. I wanted to throw a temper-tantrum. I wanted to I run over the desks!
I didn’t, of course. I was thirty; I’d put my desk-running days behind me. But I did un-bottle that repressed rebel-urge. I quit. And I didn’t just quit my job. No. I quit work all together!
I realised that my behaviour as a child was only partly due to external events; being made to sit inside when I’d rather have been playing outdoors. It was only one part nurture. It was also one part nature.
I, dear reader, was a rebel. I had always been a rebel, from my earliest days. It was who I was. The real me!
And so I rebelled. I was true to myself. I was me.
I went off and wrote my first novel. I nurtured that part of my inner-child which wanted to be a writer.
And I also made my novels rebellious. In doing so, I let my inner-rebel, my inner-me, come to life in the pages of my books. I wrote about resisting the military machine, resisting occupation, resisting the forces which try to mould us. Resisting! Rebelling! Living!
The Little Voice explains this process more fully, albeit through the eyes of a fictitious character. The role football played in my childhood is omitted. I’ve tried to make it accessible to everyone, regardless of their own personal inner-dreams. But the story holds true. It’s a story of resistance. A story of rebellion. And a story about my personal journey, as I asked myself that magic question; “Who am I? Who was I, before the world told me who I should be?”
Check out Joss’s novels here.
Joss’s new novel, “Money Power Love” is due out on the 7th of October 2017, here.