On Optimism and Gratitude

When I decided to write a series of 10 articles to commemorate 10 years since I moved to Seattle, my first theme idea was inspired by 10 Things I Hate About You, filmed at Tacoma’s Stadium High School. I could have written about 10 things that irritate me about my adoptive hometown. (First up: white condiments used on the wrong foods.) That idea didn’t last long. First, the website I Hate Seattle already has some 500 rants. Second, I’ve come to realize the benefits of optimism and gratitude since I moved out here.

After I moved to Seattle in 2006 and started working at Amazon, I subscribed to seattle-chatter@, an internal mailing list where employees discussed everything. I unsubscribed a few months later. That same year I also stopped reading and commenting on Slashdot, which at that time was where most of the world’s uppity nerds held court. It wasn’t that I disliked these general forums; on the contrary, I read them multiple times during the workday, and they stoked an animosity in me. A year and a half before Randall Munroe drew xkcd’s famous “Duty Calls” comic, I felt compelled to correct people who were wrong on the Internet — and, in some cases, on the intranet. This was no way to win friends or influence people at a company that relies on peer reviews for employee performance evaluation. Now I work at Tableau, a company that explicitly calls out “respect” as a core value, and it turns out that people work pretty well together when they respect each other.

I’ve stayed clear of Slashdot for the past 10 years and I never developed a habit of reading Digg or Reddit after Slashdot’s angry reader-curators encamped there. I’ve also avoided the people who yell their umbrage with national news into camera 1 intending to be serious (Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann); funny (Jon Stewart, John Oliver); or profound (Will McAvoy). There was also the matter of my New York sarcasm, an affect I still slide back into more often than I should. Being negative is easy for me and might get a cheap laugh, but until I get a TV contract of my own, it’s more harmful to me than it is to anyone else.

Much to the annoyance of people who’ve known me for long enough, I’ve been actively working to put more optimism and gratitude into my life. When a project starts, rather than focusing on the risks like I studied in school and like I dwelled on in Slashdot threads, I focus on what will happen in the best of cases. Being grateful for the positive things in my life matters, and I’ve been blessed with many opportunities and rewards. I’ve stopped empathizing with people who act ungratefully, not wanting to get latched onto negativity myself.

I learned at Amazon, of all places, to “expect” good things instead of to “want” them and to be “disappointed” instead of “angry” if good things don’t result from people’s actions. A person’s anger gets easier to ignore as it grows louder. Wants sound more irrational as they’re repeated by one side in an argument. Disappointment is a quiet, slow burn, born from expectations that two reasonable parties could agree on.

Particularly in the past year, I’ve gravitated more towards optimism and gratitude and I’ve sought to avoid getting drawn into cynical discussions or into focusing on wants. In Robert Sutton’s excellent book The No Asshole Rule are many profound and profane nuggets of wisdom. By associating with assholes, writes Sutton, a person becomes more of an asshole in their own right. I saw this in my own online behavior: by spending time with the snarky commenters of Slashdot and environs, I unconsciously made their habits into my own. To save myself, I’ve cut myself off from most comments sections and I’ve made liberal use of Twitter’s and Facebook’s blocking and muting features. This seems like it would have a high cost, yet I can still get along well socially with people I’ve muted on social media.

Ten years into Seattle life and nearly 14 years into my career, after making some progress and sliding back on occasion, I freely admit that I don’t always practice what I preach above. When I’m in a bad mood I might post something sarcastic or negative, and later I find myself grateful for the “delete” button. (Seriously, I highly recommend that people delete their bad posts if they can get away with doing so.) I’ve learned that it’s possible to criticize something or someone while also being respectful. Sarcasm is funny and I still laugh at people who use it well, although I laugh less at mockery and at belittling than I used to. I encourage people I know and trust to call me out when I’m being negative, or unconstructive, or unprofessional, or just an asshole.

This is the epilogue to 10 Years, 10 Things to Love, a yearlong series commemorating my 10th anniversary of moving to Seattle.