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The “radical optimism” philosophy that gave birth to Google Glass

The “radical optimism” philosophy that gave birth to Google Glass


5+3=8 4+6=10 2+4=7 93=6

If your first thought is, “Oh, one of these equations is wrong,” you're not alone. (And of course, you're right.) Our brains are hardwired to recognize mistakes first. This negativity bias is something humans evolved to help us survive. We learned to look for bad or wrong things to avoid danger. Our natural attraction/aversion to mistakes and false outcomes may have protected us from extinction throughout human history, but it also taught us to stick to what we know now, rather than opening ourselves up to an unknown and potentially dangerous future.

Let's look at how this negativity bias manifests itself in our daily lives.

The suitcase you've had since college finally breaks, and you spend a few hours searching for a new one. This should be easy, since you found a great brand and model at a bargain price, but you can't stop scrolling through the reviews on the company's website. You see dozens of big thumbs up from satisfied customers, but also a few unhappy complaints. It doesn't matter that most of the negative reviews are about delivery issues and not about the quality of the product. Those reviews stick in your mind, and even though you've done your research to make sure this suitcase is perfect for you, you end up clicking away. That's negativity bias.

If you've ever lived or worked in New York City, you know the golden rule of riding the subway: avoid eye contact. This is the corollary of the unspoken rule most of us follow when we encounter a stranger. We rely on solitude when walking down the street or on an airplane to reduce the likelihood of being exposed to someone else's problems and pain. We avoid contact because we anticipate negative possibilities, when in fact that stranger could be a lifelong friend or lover, or a source of life-changing ideas and information.

Or you've arranged to meet a new business prospect at a conference in Denver. As you sit down to dinner, the initial small talk centers on issues with your hotel room or the flight delay that postponed the meeting by an hour, not on the restaurant's stunning views of the Rocky Mountains or the refined menu you've heard so much about. When you're feeling a bit disoriented and out of your usual routine, especially when it comes to traveling, your attention is drawn to the one thing that went wrong.

You probably know that negativity bias tends to dominate our daily story. Research shows that for every negative impression we experience, we need at least three positive emotional impressions to counteract it. So how do optimists avoid the constant battle against negativity that constantly plays out in their heads?

Optimists believe and expect a positive outcome. They envision the possibility of a good outcome and, because they have a kind of transcendental confidence, they are committed to it (Saturday's hike is going to be awesome! Who said it was going to rain?).

Do people who believe good things will happen actually make good things happen? No, they don't. But optimists have more confidence in their ability to make a difference, and so are more likely to take action and realize their positive vision. And because optimists have a positive mindset, they notice good things that others don't. This alone — that they spend more time focusing on the good than the bad — explains why optimists tend to live healthier, longer lives, and be more resilient to adversity than pessimists.

A future-ready state of mind requires a more clear-sighted, purposeful positivity – a way of looking at the world that I call radical optimism.

Radical optimism is believing not in what is good or perfect, but in the possibility of something better.

My work in the innovation field is about the relentless pursuit of better. I have seen amazing breakthroughs come from an absolute conviction that they can achieve something better: better technology, a better product, a better service, a better process or protocol, or even a better humanity. They may not know exactly what that better is, but they trust that over time, their efforts will produce the desired results.

What innovators know is that better is the result of constant iteration. They tweak and test, tweak and test again to improve what's in front of them. Instead of trying to hit the ball out of the park, the best innovators look for just that slight improvement that will take their work to the next level, and the level after that.

The pursuit of better is progress, not perfection. Achieving the best is rare, and there aren't many GOATs in the world. But when oriented toward betterment, each day is filled with endless and immediate opportunities to succeed. Radical optimists choose to seize these opportunities, creating a rhythm that repeats at many levels of daily life.

Google Glass was one of the most exciting projects I have ever been involved in. Developed by the Google X Moonshot Research Lab, the smart glasses went through thousands of iterations as they evolved from idea to prototype to product. During each sprint, the team collected countless pieces of information, which they documented weekly in three categories: technical, social, and design. We tested many ideas for how users would interact with the device. For example, what about that cool multi-touch interface that Tom Cruise frantically interacts with in Minority Report? We found that this interface quickly fatigued our arms. We also briefly prototyped the idea of ​​using a separate device to record the user's conversations throughout the day, but we found that users were actually not interested in re-experienced the mostly inconsequential conversations they have every day.

The more effort I put in, day by day, even hour by hour, the better the results.

When early versions of the product were given to 8,000 beta testers in the Glass Explorer program, the feedback provided by these users challenged the developers' assumptions. In the end, Google Glass didn't become the next big thing that many hoped it would, but Glass's technology contributed to important advancements in a variety of fields, including healthcare, journalism, hospitality, and emergency services. But everyone I know who worked on the project came in every day full of confidence that whatever the fate of the product, we would learn and move forward. This experience taught me in the most surprising way that radical optimism focused on what's better can accelerate progress.

But I noticed something odd. While humans have a tendency to stick to the best, they also have a tendency to settle for what is not bad or good enough, which not only leads to no improvement but ultimately to decline. Consider our relationship with gasoline. For decades, we have been content with the costs (both financial and environmental) we have paid for our dependence on fossil fuels. Until recently, most of us have largely chosen not to focus on what could be improved about our gasoline addiction. But a global pandemic, a shaky economy, wars in oil-producing regions, and many other factors have come together, and suddenly, we are paying more every time we fill up our tank than we have ever paid in history, and the environmental costs of complacency are unavoidable. Let’s take a moment to think about all the incremental things we could have done over the years to be better than we are now.

Radical optimists don't try to push better to a distant point in time. They believe that better is possible in the next moment. We understand that we are choosing better and acting in ways that will achieve better now. This gives us instant gratification and motivates us to keep choosing better over and over again, ultimately making us people who see the future as a better place that we are creating.

Being a staunch optimist both grounds and elevates your expectations. You're a cold realist who sees the mountain ahead of you, but you're convinced that there's something better on the other side of it, and you have no qualms about moving toward that unknown possibility.

From “What's Next Is Now: How To Live Future Ready” by Frederik G. Pferdt. Copyright 2024 Frederik G. Pferdt. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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