Navigating Cruel Optimism: Understanding its Real Impact

In today's world, many focus on being their absolute best and chasing big goals. For Andrew Soren, this could mean 'cruel optimism'—where giving your all is the only thing, and if you fail, you blame yourself. It's important to look beyond just yourself and think about other things that make work meaningful.

Being part of something bigger

Nick: I think it's a nice alternative to what we often hear in the modern literature, or from a lot of coaches, this idea of ‘be the best version of yourself’, which I'm quite sick of hearing. What are your thoughts on that phrase? And would you associate that to eudaimonia? Or do you think it's a sort of a corrupt interpretation?

Andrew: I think it's absolutely a component of eudaimonia. Aristotle sometimes used this metaphor of like, the acorn and the oak tree. The premise that if you find an acorn in the woods, and at least here in Canada, it is the fall and there are lots of acorns in the woods, every single one of those acorns contains the possibility of a mighty oak tree. Or any other kind of tree that acorn might be, but let's let's say it's an oak tree.

It's not like every acorn just automatically turns into that oak tree. There's actually a ton of stuff that needs to happen to be able to potentiate ourselves. I mean, there's the obvious things like, there needs to be water, there needs to be air, there needs to be oxygen, and there needs to be those environmental conditions.

That acorn also has to be protected; other things can eat that acorn before it's ready—it needs to be buried in the right place. There has to be all these environmental conditions and ecological conditions and systemic conditions. Let alone whatever the DNA of that actual acorn, that are going to govern whether or not that acorn makes it into a mighty oak tree.

So I think that the challenge of this work, if you're actually going to get into it, is that it's really complex, try to figure out how we go about potentiating ourselves. And there aren't simple answers, there's no silver bullet to what that looks like. And anybody who's preaching that to you, quite frankly is gaslighting you into believing that it's just up to you.

I think that especially in the world of positive psychology, there can be this what one person calls ‘cruel optimism’, which is to a certain extent, the American Dream, which is if you just work hard enough, everything can potentially be yours. And if that's not happening for you, it's your fault, because you're not working hard enough.

I think that’s certainly the literature that we're going to talk about and meaningful work; as just one micro example would suggest that there's absolutely personal resources at stake that you need to bring to bear. And there's always going to be enabling conditions. Those two things have to play together. We have to think about those things in systemic ways. That's just complex, and it's hard.

Nick: Yeah, it's complicated, but it's worthwhile pursuing, I think—a meaningful life, a challenging life. I guess we just got to be careful that it's not too self-centric. That's sometimes the impression I get from some of the literature, the modern literature. I always go back to the Japanese word for self, which is jibun, and it has you and part of self, sort of indicating that you are a part of something bigger.

Rather than thinking you're independent, you're actually very much interdependent. You wouldn't be who you are without the influence of others, and you wouldn't be able to do what you want to do without the help of others. I don't know if we hear enough of that in the current modern literature.