Damn the cynics and embrace the positive

First published in the Financial Times on 13th August 2013.

Optimism is a crucial characteristic for entrepreneurs and confidence is easy to justify

A couple of weeks ago three young entrepreneurs visited me and asked: “What was your biggest challenge?” In replying, I realised that after 30 years in business the greatest risk was not that I would fail. Instead, my most frequent worry has always been that I would become mired in complacency, boredom and cynicism. So how does one ward off these creeping evils?

One of the best solutions was epitomised by my meeting: engaging with younger people, who have a natural enthusiasm, inquisitiveness and optimism. They are a wonderful antidote to the constant threat of ending up a jaded old man who’s seen it all before, thinks everything is getting worse and spends his time breeding pessimism – I know a few of that type. So, I speak at lots of events for enterprising students and start-ups partly because I find their energy and zest both infectious and exhilarating.

Life is a learning project and it is important to constantly acquire fresh knowledge. New hobbies, second careers, wide travels – all these open one’s eyes to the limitless possibilities of the world. What is more, those who exercise their brains with intellectual pursuits are likely to live longer, more fulfilled lives.

I also seek out good news, to amass optimistic facts. Such a frame of mind helps keep me open to possibilities, and able to see the best – rather than the worst – in others. For example, The Economist recently highlighted the extraordinary decline in crime in the west in the past 10 years or so. There are many reasons for this trend, but it is unarguably something to celebrate. Similarly, there has been a remarkable reduction in armed conflicts worldwide since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 – a decline of 60 per cent since the post-second world war peak.

Measures of state fragility – poor governance, extreme poverty and so forth – have improved in dramatic fashion in the past two decades across Latin America, Asia, eastern Europe and Africa.

In comfier places such as western Europe and North America, we don’t always appreciate how life has been transformed for hundreds of millions. We obsess about our own petty short-term GDP statistics, and often fail to notice how billions have gained access to decent medicines, greater freedoms, telephony, the internet and suchlike. Of course huge numbers still do not have basics we take for granted, such as fresh water. But constant upgrades in education, communication and infrastructure mean these positive trends are certain to continue.

Possibly the biggest underlying rationale for a positive approach is the cumulative impact of scientific advances. Be it energy, the environment, agriculture, healthcare, transport – in essentially every field of human endeavour, over time progression in technology leads to relentless rises in living standards on almost every measure.  Matt Ridley’s epic work The Rational Optimist is the book to study if you want the arguments laid out in compelling detail.

I fear most of us take these amazing incremental improvements for granted – partly because they have been going on for so long, and partly because we mostly don’t understand how, for example, so many goods such as clothing and cars keep getting cheaper and/or better. Our ignorance of science means we do not properly appreciate its astounding benefits – and the incredible complexity and diversity of modern devices, systems and processes is such that no one can comprehend all of them.

Another attitude that favours a sense of engagement is being proactive. Things happen to those individuals who are in motion, as opposed to people who are static. I favour busy personalities rather than those who don’t do much, or simply observe rather than participate in the fray. Even if some of their activity might appear irrelevant or misguided, such experiences might prove useful at a later date. Entrepreneurs are doers rather than pure thinkers, which is why I find their company stimulating and healthy.

There will always be opportunities; there will always be excitement. The world is not perfect, but for a good proportion, life is better than ever. The big picture is brighter than many imagine. Each of us needs to guard against destructive doubts, and try constantly to move forward with confidence and hope.