The truth about American optimism

Today when I navigated to the library homepage at my institution, a stranger appeared. The handy quick links I’d come to know and rely on to help students get the materials they need–gone. The research guides, essential for accessing resources such as subject librarians–buried in a peripheral page somewhere in the footer. The Web of Science, so integral to evaluate the relevance and reliability of journals via its “Journal Citation Reports” function–who knows.

Does this sound familiar?

Technology firms are perennial offenders. How many times have we grown accustomed to our Gmail inboxes just in time for Google to “improve” the experience? How many iterations of Facebook have existed? How many times have those changes arrived to open arms? And this phenomenon doesn’t contain itself to information firms. Ever log in to your preferred financial institution’s website and wonder if you’re at the right website?

Have the engineers at Google considered the possibility that the Calendar interface doesn’t need fixing? Did it cross the minds of Coca-Cola executives that they didn’t need to create a new flavor? And will the executives in Hollywood please figure out they cannot “remake” Star Wars or Alien, or Psycho, or any other classic film?

These are the real fruits of what Americans flatter themselves to be “optimism”–the idea that nothing can ever be good enough–nothing and no one should ever satisfy–that things can always be “better” (shudder, not emphatic quotes, intended)–the philosophical denial that a state of sufficiency exists.

And if you let others know you’re not striving for something better, they assume the problem lies with you–you’re lazy–an underachiever–a loser. Take the self-evaluation forms companies require their employees complete each year. The section titled “goals” always disrupts my cognitive harmony. To assume that you need to strive to improve something every year–to ignore the possibility that things are running well and can continue without modification strikes me as a source of pathology. Try leaving it blank. See what your supervisor says.

And the stress doesn’t need originate extrinsically. Americans describe their need for a new job as a desire to be challenged. Why? When did “contentment” become a dirty word?

And if you rejoin that this impulse stems from human nature, I invite you to travel more–to places like Japan or Europe–places where no one expects to become rich, or famous, or a “hot shot”–places where people can relax and enjoy life, without treading the hamster wheel of hyper-competition.

American optimism means endless fiddling with the technology you use; it means torrents of “places that need improvement”; it means a parade of people refusing to let you relax and just do your job–the kind of optimism that ensures a cadaver unsatisfied with the plot in which it’s interred.

American Optimism falls somewhere near its cousin–the Protestant work ethic–just another American vice prettied up and paraded as a virtue.

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