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The Antidote to Pessimism and Paranoia (and Some Very Bad Advice)

In the book pictured above, novelist/journalist gives his pretend audience of new graduates this advice: “Lowering your expectations will inoculate you against serial disappointments. It will also set you up for heart-lifting surprises on those occasions when someone you meet turns out to be unexpectedly honorable, generous and selfless.”

He tells his invisible soon-to-be real-world workers to learn how to judge someone in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee.

The book is clever and well-written as you would expect from someone with Hiaasen’s talent, but it contains some monumentally bad advice. While it might be true that, to quote the title of a book by former Intel CEO Andy Grove, only the paranoid survive, in the human world making snap assessments of other people and expecting the worst from them is a formula for pessimism and paranoia that can severely limit a career and close off the circle of potential friends and colleagues.

There is much research documenting that people tend to respond to your expectations. The power of expectation to shape reality shows up in the Hawthorne Effect, the Pygmalion Effect, the Placebo Effect and in many other ways.

If you expect the worst of another human being, that is probably what you will get. Decide over a cup of coffee that you don’t trust them and they will soon earn that distrust – but before that happens they will pick up on your vibes and decide that they don’t trust you.

Assume that someone will be a lazy slacker unless and until proven otherwise and it’s unlikely that they will ever prove otherwise. Instead of inspiring people to perform at the highest possible level, you will find yourself constantly managing poor performers by cracking the whip and holding their feet to the fire (the two most common metaphors for holding someone accountable).

Almost begrudgingly, Hiaasen gives advice that can help to inoculate you against pessimism, cynicism, paranoia and despair: simple garden variety kindness. Acknowledging that we all face challenges in our lives he writes:

“People who are truly hurting are grateful for one happy moment. All it takes to bring them a smile – or maybe a laugh – is a single act of comfort… Force yourself to experiment with kindness, even when the impulse eludes you.”

So here’s the advice I would give to Hiaasen’s invisible audience: Don’t save your single acts of comfort for people who are at that moment truly hurting. Remember that at one time or another in our lives we are all truly hurting. Don’t hoard kindness for those who you think deserve it or need it. Open every relationship, every conversation, every chance encounter with a stranger with an attitude of kindness.

You might well be disappointed, as Hiaasen predicts. You will also, over the course of a career or a lifetime, be happier and more successful. You will be a better leader and a better parent. You will help to offset some of the nastiness and meanness that is polarizing our nation and our communities. And there is a 100% probability that you will have a more positive influence on the lives of other people than you will if you take Hiaasen’s advice at face value.

PS: The Kenyon College commencement address by David Foster Wallace is justifiably considered one of the best ever delivered. The creative version of This is Water produced by The Glossary video company is well worth watching – and sharing with any soon-to-be graduates in your circle.

Want to learn more about how Values Coach can help your organization build a more positive Culture of Ownership on the foundation of The Twelve Core Action Values? Call us at 319-624-3889 or email Director of Client Services Michelle Arduser at

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