Friday, September 4, 2009

Positive Pessimism

Mountain climbing is a perverse endeavor. It takes a different kind of person to decide they would rather drag themselves through days or weeks of pain on the side of some cold rock than stay at home in a warm bed with their loved ones. Depending on your point of view, we either have a unique idea of a good time or a massive personality defect. Either way, a side effect of the lifestyle is the development of a sick sense of humor. Part of it has to do with the climbing machismo, but part of it is a normal human response to the pain and misery we put ourselves through. Positive pessimism is a great example. It’s an idea we came up with accidentally, but it
has served us well over the years.

The idea began on our trip to Denali. Being stuck at high camp was a miserable time. We were parked on the only spot with any real cover, a relatively flat patch of hard rock and ice beneath a stone outcropping. We sat around for days eating cold food out of tin cans, waiting for the weather to break. Sleep was nearly impossible, with the whipping winds and tough ground
doing their best to keep us awake. When we were able to catch some rest, we’d often wake up to find that the ice beneath us had melted into a small glacial pool, or that the smell of unwashed
bodies in the tent had become unbearable. We’d all had it.

By the third afternoon, I wondered if we would start to crack. In order to break the tedium, we decided to press on. We’d been hoping to make some headway despite the storm, but didn’t
seem to be making any progress upward. Chris was leading us up a dark, miserable glacier, when he turned and uttered, “It’s cold out here, but at least it’s windy.” A slow smile curled up from the corner of his mouth. In spite of our shared tension, each of us chuckled for a moment.
“We’ve been climbing all day, but at least we’re lost,” Erik added. This brought a new round of laughs.
“Last night, I found a hole in my sleeping bag, but at least I've got frostbite,” was my contribution.

Sam had left us minutes before to relieve himself off the trail. But now, from twenty yards away, we could hear him shout, “It’s twenty below, but at least I’m partially naked!”
For the next few days, whenever the team seemed to be down, someone would invent a new positive pessimism. For us, it became a way to laugh at ourselves and the downside of a
unpleasant reality. Things aren’t always great; they won’t always be how you want them to be. The best thing to do is laugh.

I think learning not to take ourselves so seriously has been a secret of our success, and other people seem to agree. Ever since I first mentioned it in a speech years ago, the response has
been overwhelming. Nearly every day I get a note from someone who is taking the idea of positive pessimism and making it work for them: ‘I get micromanaged, but at least my boss is an idiot.’ Or ‘The company is downsizing, but at least my assistant is still worthless.’ I think it’s great. The next time you find yourself in a tough spot, try to find the fun in it.

And remember, life may be hard, but at least you’ll die in the end.