Imagine you are an Olympic athlete. You could be a track star, a distance swimmer, or a figure skater. Whatever sport you choose, chances are you’ve been training for it since the moment you could walk. You have your gym routine down to a science, you’ve hired specialized coaches to help you along the way, and you eat a specific meal plan that ensures you perform at your best. Physically, you are at the peak of your sport, and you’ve done everything you can to be one of the best athletes in the world.
But to win, your game needs to extend way past the physical. Mentally, you have to believe you will win, no matter what. Crouching at those starting blocks or mounting the balance beam, you must think you will end the day on top of the podium with a gold medal around your neck. Otherwise, what’s the point of competing in the first place?
The problem is that every athlete you’re competing against shares this belief, and you know that. You also know that there can only be one winner, so statistically, the chances of you coming out on top are pretty low. Yet, you must go against your own logic and believe that no matter what, you will win. This is naive optimism, the belief that good outcomes are more likely to happen to you than bad ones in any given situation, whether or not the good result is logical or even probable.
You must keep yourself unaware, or naïve, of what could prevent you from your goals and forge forward as if you will achieve them regardless of any external factors. No matter the circumstance, you believe things will work out for you even when the odds aren’t in your favor or when certain obstacles are in your way.
To be a naïve optimist requires a suspension of disbelief. You must adopt a positive stance or perspective in every situation without familiarizing yourself with its nuance or details. It’s like walking around with blinders, ignoring everything that could go wrong. Or, in the professional athlete’s case, using naivete to forget about all your competitors and the statistical likelihood that you’ll lose.
The ignorance of the naïve optimist can serve them well. Have you ever felt anxious before a party where you don’t know many people? You run over all your insecurities and the hypothetical social blunders that could occur. It might feel comforting to go through all the scenarios that could go wrong in your head. What will you do if you spill your drink all over someone? Or forget the name of a person who swears you’ve met before?
But is it really comforting? Or do you just end up feeling anxious and worried throughout the party? Forgetting to enjoy yourself or meet new people.
The naïve optimist would go into the night assuming everyone will like them, and everything will go off without a hitch. While this might not be true, awkwardness is almost a given when meeting new people; when you have positive expectations, you stop anxiety and catastrophic thinking in its tracks. You go into the party with a more open demeanor, making it more likely that you will make a good impression.
You could have a similar attitude when interviewing for a job. Believing you will do well and achieve the desired outcome makes it more likely to happen. Blocking out the negative possibilities helps you focus on all the good things that could happen. It prepares you to confidently communicate your credentials and why you would be the best choice for the role instead of worrying about why you might not be.
To take your naïve optimism to the next level, you would prepare for the interview as if you already have the job, despite the other candidates interviewing for the same role.
From the outside, it can be easy to conflate naïve optimism with manifestation. Both methods constitute an unwavering belief that you will achieve what you want, but that’s about where their similarities end.
Manifestation is putting an intention out into the universe and expecting the universe to grant you that wish. It relies heavily on energy and things like journaling and visualization, and at least how it has been popularized suggests that something will happen even if you don’t work for them.
On the other hand, the naive optimist knows this mindset does not guarantee that all their wants and desires will plop in their lap. Asking the universe for the winning lottery numbers or your dream home will not get you those things.
Naïve optimism is about tangibly working toward your goals and believing you will achieve them because of that work. It’s being optimistic about the results of the work you’ve put in, regardless of the challenges you might face.
Sadly, Our society has gotten to a point where being optimistic is now seen as wrong. To an extent, I do kinda understand. Our shared culture is riddled with political discourse, climate change crisis, rampant inflation, and a general fear that we’re headed towards doom. And so it’s hard for most people to see or even imagine a light at the end of the tunnel.
As a result, naive optimists are often ridiculed for being arrogant or even stupid. What people don’t realize is that a naively optimistic outlook might open up a new perspective in these conversations. While everyone is so focused on what could go wrong and the problems we face, you could be the person focused on making the best possible outcome a reality.
Another critique is that naïve optimists lack the perspective to see the nuance in complex situations. It’s a frustrating perspective to work with when solving complicated problems with tangible barriers. Optimism is good when doing focused, detailed work like policy-making or engineering, but naivete can hinder you from confronting genuine issues. In large-scale projects, the naïve optimist does have their place, but it’s also necessary to balance that perspective with a more realistic outlook.
One of the best utilizations of naïve optimism is at the outset of a massive project or challenge. Naivete is helpful in situations where confronting the whole picture could discourage you. Consider starting a business, writing a novel, or completing a triathlon. If you begin a big project thinking about all the problems you’ll inevitably have along the way, you will not be motivated to start. Instead, it’s best to be optimistic that you will complete the project without considering the obstacles.
Even if you don’t reach your goal, you will still be further along at the end than if you had convinced yourself it was impossible from the start. Naïve optimism will always push you further toward success, even if you don’t make it all the way there each time. It allows you to try new things and pushes you out of your comfort zone because you are not as focused on what could go wrong. You build confidence and trust in yourself by giving yourself that chance, however naïve it might seem.
It reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Usually, this phenomenon refers to the type of person with a low skill level in a particular area who grossly overestimates their ability anyway. Think of an audience member watching a ballerina onstage and thinking to themselves, “Hey, that doesn’t look so hard; I could do that.” Fast forward to them in a ballet class, struggling to do even the most basic steps with proper technique.
Often, the Dunning-Kruger Effect has a negative connotation. People are so ignorant about their abilities that they don’t even know how ignorant they are. But it’s actually not that bad. Because it is the Dunning-Kruger Effect that allows people to take the first step to achieve greatness.
Yes, that audience member who watched the ballerina grossly overestimated their skill level, but that naivety allowed them to enter the dance studio. And sure, they may have two left feet at first. Still, through perseverance and an unwavering belief that they can succeed, in just a few years of training, they too will be pirouetting and leaping across the stage while another audience member watches and thinks to themselves, “I’m pretty sure I can do this.”
This is why kids learn stuff so quickly. If you’ve spent significant time around children, especially toddlers, you’ll notice they are very optimistic about their abilities. Overly so. From dressing to pouring juice to cutting their hair, they think they can care for themselves despite their lack of life skills. But their naïve optimism is what builds those skills. It allows them to practice, so eventually, one day, the orange juice ends up in the glass instead of all over the table.
Older children also tend to overestimate their abilities, allowing them to have zero fear when trying new things. They are like little sponges, eagerly soaking up new information. They learn quickly and hungrily because they don’t possess all the self-conscious baggage surrounding ignorance.
It might be helpful to adopt a childlike mindset when learning new things. It comes from a want to learn and forgetting how likely failure will be at first. Overcoming that initial mental hurdle is the most helpful thing naïve optimism can do for you.
Another instance where naïve optimism can aid you is when facing a difficult life situation. Maybe you or someone you know is dealing with a chronic illness, financial stress, or relationship struggles. A naïve optimist would believe in their core that they will make it out the other side. They wouldn’t spend time considering what might be in their way or the realistic likelihood that things might turn for the worst.
And I’m not trying to say that naïve optimism will make these situations quickly melt away. Instead, this philosophy is meant to help you see a favorable resolution in cases where it’s too easy to focus on the negative. As humans, we tend to have a bias toward the negative. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. We are urged to protect and prepare ourselves for the worst that life can throw our way. But an overemphasis on the negative is not helpful. It can cause you to overblow a situation and indulge in unnecessary worry.
Feeling overwhelmed by negativity when life inevitably becomes difficult is normal. But just because you encounter a challenging situation doesn’t mean that you have to give up the idea that, at some point, things will get better and work out for you. With a naively optimistic attitude, you can make better decisions with your future self in mind.
Naïve optimism takes practice. As a chronic overthinker, it is not a mindset that comes naturally to me. The key might be to fake it until you make it. If you act like a naïve optimist, you will likely sincerely adopt the attitude over time.
Start with the small things. I will complete everything on my to-do list. The meeting with my boss will go well. I will successfully bake a loaf of bread from scratch. Then, hopefully, this attitude will seep into more influential sectors of your life.
Even if you don’t become the textbook example of a naïve optimist, these thought patterns will get you further than if you didn’t use them. Remember your ideal, Olympic athlete self. You must believe you will win the race to reach the starting blocks. When the race begins, you are paces ahead of where you would’ve been without this belief. Even if someone runs faster and beats you, the idea that you would win still did more for you than the belief that you’d lose. And there’s always the next race. The one you know you’ll definitely win.
But if you’re still in your head, unable to entirely give yourself over to naivete, it might be helpful to check out another theory, optimistic nihilism. The belief is that nothing matters, but rather than letting that be a reason for fear and anxiety, embrace it as a good thing.
Why? Click the video on your screen to find out.