Pessimism: The cure for false expectation

A realistic view of the world

A few years ago, I discovered Alain de Botton, a sort of modern philosopher that took an interesting approach on the way we approach the events of our lives. He focused particularly on pessimism and how we react to it. His work is based on the Roman philosopher, Seneca, who dedicated a large part of his work on the problem of Anger.

Seneca saw anger as something that can be a rational outburst, and not something we have no control over.

Not everything we get angry about is rational however. A common example is road rage. Everyday we drive on the roads and we get angry at bad drivers and traffic jams. Everyday we expect all drivers to drive perfectly and the roads to clear up just before we cruise on them.

It's understandable that it comes as a shock for a first time driver. When you first get your permit and hit the roads, you don't expect someone to veer into your lane without using the turn signal. How can they have possibly passed the driving test and make such a basic mistake? The anger resulting is completely justified. But after driving for years, the situation does not improve, the same things that happened on your first day will also happen 10 years down the road multiple times a day.

We shout, we gesticulate, we threaten, and, not surprisingly, we are surprised by these event as if it was the very first time they happened.

Traffic jam and bad driving, are neither unfair nor surprising. They're a predictable feature of life. The person who gets angry at them, simply have the wrong expectation of the world.

So Seneca's first piece of advice, is to be more pessimistic, to adjust our view of the world so to be less surprised when reversals occur.

If we know that these events occur and that we can't do anything about them, we are less likely to be angered by them.

In other words, if I tell you I am going to kick you, you are not going to be surprised if I kick you. Yet, these are the exact things we do when driving on the roads.

I find these ideas to be fitting in the world technology. There is one thing particular that we have concluded in the software development world that anyone with more than a couple years of experience would agree on.

We all write shitty software with bugs

And it is not limited to solo developers working on their side project. Large teams in tech titans like Google, Microsoft, and Apple falls into the same bucket. There is no such thing as software that works any time, every time, and all the time.

We are surprised to see a website like Twitter go down, yet every tech blog has at least 10 articles about 10 things that will go wrong in 10 different scenarios 10 times a day. We are embarrassed when someone finds a bug in our program, yet we have already concluded that a bug is a natural phenomenon like an ingrown hair.

If you ever set up a website on your development machine, you know that when you deploy it the first time on a production server, it will fail. It just does, every single time. (You should be worried if it works). Yet we are surprised when it does fail. We get angry at the hosting company, or the programming environment we are restricted to use, and all the stuff that is out of our control.

[...] But we do have one advantage over animals. We have reason and dogs don't. And this reason gives us a key advantage. It means we can realize what we can change and what we can't. We may be unable to alter some events, but we can always change our attitude towards those events. And it is this ability that Seneca believed that gave us our distinctive form of freedom.

If we apply the Seneca's philosophy as suggested by Alain de Botton, anger should be taken out of the equation. If we already expect things to break, at least we can prepare to deal with the consequence.

When things work out, I should be glad, when they don't I should be mad. One thing I shouldn't be, is surprised.

There is a much more fascinating world when reading about the power and freedom that comes from pessimism. Pessimism, not to be a pessimist, is a realistic view of the world, that shields us from the false expectation we chose to believe because we are afraid of the consequences. The very definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Traffic is bad, but when you know that it is inevitable, you will plan accordingly. Maybe you can get an audio book, that will make the ride more interesting when parked on the freeway. You might be tempted to stay longer in your car so you can listen to it a little more.

When you take into consideration that your website will break the day you deploy it, you will be more realistic in giving an estimated time of completion to your client.

When you expect your program to fail in front of an audience, like it just did with Nadella presenting Cortana features, you will be better prepared to face the consequences.

So I compiled a few things for my self and decided to share them with you. Not to be pessimistic for the sake of being a pessimist, but to adjust our skewed expectation of the world and help us improve.

Things to expect and accept:

These reminders are not here to be depressing. This is to remember that it is insane to think the world owe me to be fair and nice and that things should work out for me because I am me. When things work out, I should be glad, when they don't I should be mad. One thing I shouldn't be, is surprised.

Take time to understand that the world does not owe you anything, and it will be a much more pleasant experience whether in happiness or madness.


Alain De botton
Seneca On Anger
Alain De botton - On Pessimism


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