Dismiss Pollyanna

Beware of people who cheer you on with Pollyannish optimism.

Posted Feb 08, 2015

Keith Allison, CC 2.0

In America, being optimistic is key to being liked and successful.

  • Politicians know they get votes with such statements as, “America’s best days are yet to come!”
  • Self-help gurus sell more books and get more clients by blithely proclaiming, “Work hard and you can achieve your dreams!”
  • Clerics get more parishioners and donations with “With God’s help you can accomplish anything!”
  • Friends who say, “You can do it!” are more popular than those who make a probabilistic estimate, for example,

Your chances of paying back your student loans let alone making a sustainably middle-class income from that music or art or fashion or broadcasting degree are lower than of a rattlesnake biting you in your bed. Of course, exceptional people that can get into a nationally-top college cannot be so denigrated, but outside of those few elite schools, artsy degree and certificate programs can, without much exaggeration, be described as bizarrely expensive four-to-six-year summer camps that enable their lackluster students to claim they're pursuing a career.

Imagine that a friend said the previous paragraph to you—You’d probably de-friend them faster than you could say “mean-spirited.”

Yet being popular should be less important than being helpful. This article attempts to be helpful even at the risk of your disliking it. Of course, there’s room for legitimate optimism, and if the U.S. were suffused with undue pessimism, this article would urge more optimism. But with America suffering a bad case of probability-blind pollyannism, this article offers a mote of balance. My core expertise is career, having been career coach to almost 5,000 clients over 30 years, so here I discuss two incorrect and damaging pollyannisms related to career.

"Follow your dream!" The most widely-held dreams are long-shots: the arts, sports, fashion, broadcasting, etc. Unless you’re smart, talented, driven, and well-connected,  you're placing a very long-shot bet with your life. Truly millions of people, cheered on by Pollyanna, have spent huge chunks of their lives’ most potentially productive years, not to mention huge chunks of money, following their dream only to find themselves, a decade or more later, literally or figuratively waiting tables and living off a spouse, parents, or the taxpayer and/or with three roommates.

Thanks to America’s prioritizing raising people’s self-esteem, often even beyond what their merit justifies, countless people believe they are sufficiently smart, talented, and motivated to succeed in a long-shot career, forgetting that, by definition, 50 percent of people are below-average while only the top tiny fraction achieve even a working-class income from pursuing their long-shot dream.

Ironically, even those that “achieve the dream” may, on average, be no happier than if they pursued a mundane career. Countless people in “cool careers” are unhappy, if only because they're understandably worried that one of the oodles of people in the wings will take their job. Witness all those entertainers revolving in and out of rehab.

Your career contentment is much more likely to derive from having a secure, stable middle-class income, a reasonable commute, and a decent boss, all of which are more likely found in a career other than those overcrowded “cool" careers. After all, in those jammed fields, bosses know they can treat you like crap because plenty of other people are eager to take your job.

"Make a difference!" If its definition were sufficiently broad, no one could argue with wanting to make a difference, but the term is usually used to describe only jobs in non-profits or the government.

Fact is, non-profits tackle problems that the private sector, despite all its resources, find too difficult, for example, poverty. Trillions, yes trillions, of dollars, and countless lives of idealistic people for so many years have been devoted to reducing poverty in the U.S., yet, for example, the racial achievement gap is as wide as ever.

Too, government is far from a sure path to “making a difference.” Because of its Leviathan size, government is so tangled in interlocking agencies, rules, policies, checks and balances, and conflicts between federal, state, regional, and local dictates, that countless legislators—let alone bureaucrats--come, go, and die, without making much difference.

Ironically, you may be at least as likely to make a difference in the private sector, even if your work is as mundane as, for example, marketing lemon curd. Of course that’s possible only if you take care to accept a job only for a company whose products you believe are better or a better value and whose ethics seem solid. Once you’ve done that, if your marketing efforts result in more people buying your company’s lemon curd than, for example, the cloyingly sweet, surreally bright-yellow kind, you’ll have, for certain, improved thousands of people’s lives. Admittedly that’s not eradicating poverty or curing cancer but it can be legitimately argued that working for a for-profit that makes a good product, employs people, treats them reasonably, and will employ even more people if it sells more lemon curd, is a way to make a difference that’s worthy of consideration, even though it’s not government or non-profit work. 

A takeaway

Appreciate probabilistic feedback more than Pollyannish cheerleading..

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach who helps clients do probabilistic analysis before making important decisions. You can reach him at mnemko@comcast.net.