Downtown View:Optimism or Pessimism

My friend and I recently attended a public meeting convened by the Boston 2024 Olympics Organizing Committee.

It was entertaining in so many ways. The cast of characters was impassioned, especially the opponents. One cute girl from Somerville—probably around 20 years old, not yet a woman— was handing out posters rejecting the Olympics and asking for transit and education funding instead. Wouldn’t it be nice if things worked that way?

There were the presenters, who talked about “sport” not “sports.” One presenter was more impressive than the rest. Not only was Cheri Blauwet a Boston Marathon winner and a former Olympian, but she achieved her glory in a wheelchair. And, by the way, she’s now a physician who has time to join in the Boston 2024 effort. Listening to a person like Dr. Blauwet can make everyone wonder what important thing they’ve done with their lives.

There were the elected officials who, if they run a city or a state, have lined up in support. There were the legislators and city councilors, who seem miffed that they’ve not been properly consulted in the planning. There was the audience, packed into the main room as well as an overflow room. It was one more piece of evidence that Bostonians, quirky as they can be, are deeply involved in civic affairs.

As presentations, complaints, haranguing, praise, dire warnings of fiscal implosion, repetitions, hope and general mayhem ensued, my friend and I began noticing that the enthusiasm or the dire predictions had something in common.

Most of the speakers’ attitudes toward the Olympics were not based on fact, although “facts” were cited. Instead their position corresponded more closely to their outlook on life. Pessimists emphasized each detail that could go wrong. The optimists were less specific. They just thought problems could be solved, and they appeared to trust that the people who were running the show could bring it off.

My friend and I realized we were both optimists. We liked major initiatives. We’d started a few successful ones ourselves. We liked problems. We were confident we could solve them. We trusted that smart people like the presenters could also solve problems.

We remembered a Boston Globe columnist complaining that the “elites” of Boston were pressing the Olympics on us, almost as if he were jealous. But we saw those promoters differently. The reason they were elites was that the leaders of the effort are people of achievement. They run things. They’ve made money. They’ve held important jobs. Because of their success in their work lives, they can garner support from impressive quarters. We didn’t know any of them personally, but we could tell from the presentations that they too are optimists. Remarkably, these local leaders have reputations of honesty and good business practices. What lucky people we are to have those kind of leaders. It made optimism seem justified.

The pessimists attributed the uncertainty about venues, locations and routes to a “lack of transparency,” implying that the Boston 2024 people were hiding something.

But we considered uncertainty appropriate at this stage. Planning is an iterative process, and the word iterative is an important concept. Plans get made. Then they get adjusted. Then that adjusted plan causes a future step to become clear. That step causes the planners to reconsider an earlier step.

For optimists, this is exciting. Since I’m not a pessimist, I can’t tell what feelings it might cause for that kind of person. But it could generate caution. It could cause fear. Caution and fear could mean that no steps get taken, no problem gets solved. I know a person like this, who, when she led an organization, missed several opportunities to expand its reach.

Pessimists often see themselves as realistic rather than pessimistic. But optimists can view a claim to such “wisdom” as negative, possibly delusional. Most optimists would not call themselves realistic, although their confidence and hopefulness often carry them through difficult situations.

I looked online to see what others were saying about optimism and pessimism. A wag named Gil Stern said, “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.”

The columnist George Will, one of the all-time great pessimists, wrote, “The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised.”

But we’ll have to leave it to the optimist Harry Truman to address most closely whether Boston should host the Olympics. “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities,” said Harry. “And an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.”

            It looks as if that’s what the Boston 2024 promoters are trying to do.

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