Innovation Blog

The World is Incurably Optimistic – Especially Innovators

By Shlomo Maital




 Tali Sharot

An excellent New York Times Op-Ed by Tali Sharot, a neuroimaging expert and author of The Optimistic Bias, reveals an interesting fact. 

  “Whether you are 9 or 90, male or female, of African or European descent, you are likely to have an optimism bias.  In fact, 80 per cent of the world does.”

   In many years of working with entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and innovators, I have found that they are all especially optimistic.  All of them believe strongly that they will succeed, despite statistical evidence that most new product launches fail and at least 9 in every 10 startup businesses fail. 

    How can one explain this inveterate optimism?  After all, people learn.  Things turn out worse than we hoped and expected. So why is it we fail to adjust and eliminate this optimism bias and become more pessimistic?  Doesn’t evolution suggest that caution and pessimism fosters survival more than risky optimism?

   According to Sharot, “with the development of non-invasive brain imaging techniques, we have gathered evidence that suggests our brains are hard-wired to be unrealistically optimistic.  When we learn what the future may hold, our neurons efficiently encode unexpectedly good information, but fail to incorporate information that is unexpectedly bad”.

    But this hard-wired optimism causes problems.  “Take the red pill,” says Neo, in The Matrix.  That is – face the brutal facts, vital for any innovator.  So how can we resolve the paradox of hard-wired optimism and the need for reality?  Sharot has the answer. “Believe you will live a long healthy life, but go for frequent medical screenings.  Aspire to write the next Harry Potter series, but have a safety net in place too”. 

   This combination of sunny future optimism laced with close attention to present realities is a winning one.  Great innovators have mastered it.