What better way to start the year than with a discussion about being the best
we can be? I want to begin the discussion by considering two words: optimum and
optimism. Optimum means the most favourable situation possible. Optimism means
to be confident about the future or be sure of success at something.
Both words derive from a Latin root – optimus
, meaning “the
So, both words have a sense of being the best possible.
What does being the best possible mean as we head into a new year?
Often the word optimum, and its associated verb (to optimise
conflated with words like: maximisation of profit, the greatest on Earth, or
sometimes even victorious and powerful. However, to associate these concepts
with optimisation is incorrect. It is possible to optimise a situation or
system without having to maximise it. It is also possible for something to be
maximised, yet end up along way from an optimum.
The classic story of “The Tragedy of the Commons” illustrates this well. The
Tragedy of the Commons was the name of a pamphlet written by the English
economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833. In it Lloyd tells of the grazing of
- a common parcel of customary land in English villages.
If one, or more, herders grazed more than their allocated number of cattle on
this land, then overgrazing would occur. Thus, if individual herders maximised
the number of cattle they grazed then everyone (including those that maximise
their herd) would suffer. The optimum in this case was less for each individual
herder than the maximum each herder could theoretically graze.
Another metaphor that illustrates this is to think of a fish pond. Suppose
the pond carries twelve fish. Each day, four people fish the pond, and each
night each remaining fish spawns two new fish. How many fish can each person
take each day?
The answer is just two fish each. Simple arithmetic tells us that if each of
the four people take two fish each (eight fish in total) then the remaining four
fish will spawn eight fish overnight, meaning there are twelve fish in the pond
the next day. However, if just one of the people fishing takes three fish
(assuming the others take two each) then the following day there will be just
nine fish. If the same thing happens the next day, i.e. three people take two
fish each and the fourth takes three, then there will be no fish left in the
pond, no spawning will take place overnight. By the third day there will be no
fish in the pond for anyone.
It is a simple metaphor, yet it illustrates William Lloyd’s concept well.
Optimisation does not mean maximisation, or vice versa.
Martin Seligman has written as much as, if not more, than anyone else about
optimism. He notes that, faced with the same misfortune that pessimists face,
the optimist “tends to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its
causes are confined to this one case.”1
There is research
suggesting that pessimists are more likely to see reality accurately, but then
get bogged down by that reality, becoming depressed, inactive, lacking in drive,
prone to poorer health, and tend to catastrophise. An optimist, on the other
hand, will make plans, be happier, tend to live longer, and often be
It is the optimist who plants seeds, waters the garden, removes the weeds,
and waits months for the new crop. It is the optimist who puts money into a
fund for their 3 year old child to be used for the child’s university
education. It is the optimist who sees the opportunity in the problem
(contrasted with the pessimist who sees the difficulty in every
Seligman notes that it is possible to learn optimism, yet counsels us to heed
pessimism. Sometimes, the pessimist warning is worth noting. As we head into
the new year (I am writing this on 1 January 2018) there are warnings all around
us. We would be wise to heed them, but not allow them to dampen our
When we heed the pessimist warnings, yet proceed with optimism we are being
the best we can.
The best we can be may be to bring these two words (optimum and optimism)
together. If we proceed with optimism and we see the optimum in any situation
or system then we can all be the best we can be. If we seek the optimum (not
the maximum) then we will have cause to be optimistic about the future. We become the best we can be.
1. Seligman, Martin, Learned Optimism, Random House, Sydney,
2. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill.