The Case for Optimism: Taking Inspiration From John Linegar, MrBeast, and Nardwuar For the Future of Humankind

Published on 20th of June, 2023
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I consider myself an optimist. Not just about how my personal life will turn out, but for humankind itself.

Over the last few decades I’ve gradually garnered the impression that the majority of people doesn’t share this view.

This is a post I’ve long tried to write but often had to pause and think for a few weeks. And now, just recently, accomplished author John Green said something on his podcast which gave me a push towards finishing the thoughts.

John Green said this:

The most punk rock thing you can do right now is show earnestness and optimism.

Who doesn’t want to do the punk rock thing?!

Is that a sign of a global society in decline that it’s not mainstream anymore to work towards a common vision of a good life for everyone now and in the future? Do you have to be an alternative punk rock person in order to believe we can make it?

And has that even been the case in the past, or have we just become conscious about the possibility of the failure of our species, having taking it all for granted during all the millennia of human development?

The End of the World

In November of 2018, nearly a year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a scripted podcast by that name appeared. Josh Clark, its author and narrator, who is known as co-host of the hugely successful educational podcast called “Stuff You Should Know”, led the listener through a variety of so-called existential risks, explaining the circumstances and likelihood of each.

I’d highly recommend it, because it’s well-researched, focuses on the knowable facts, and features lots of scientist interviews. It’s not meant to sound alarmist or emotional, it just gets you thinking and inspires action. Here’s a short summary of the many existential risks he works through.

First, he explains the concepts of the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter.

Recent estimates have found that the visible universe must contain at least around 500 billion different planets with Earth-like conditions making life generally possible. Using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, the existence of thousands of these exoplanets has already been confirmed.

So, physicist Enrico Fermi famously once wondered: If there are so many habitable planets in this huge 13.8 billion year old universe, the probability of extraterrestrial life existing on many other planets must be quite high. Here on Earth, which is a planet that has been around for just the last 4.5 billion years, with life developing about 3.5 billion years and modern humans just 200,000 years ago, we’re already at the brink of developing interstellar travel – and so must other species from far away planets. Even with the relatively slow speed of light, traversing huge chunks of the universe shouldn’t take more than a few million years, which is nothing on this grand scale.

Fermi: But where is everybody?!

There are of course many factors involved which Fermi had to estimate or take for granted, for example that Earth-like conditions are even necessary for life developing. Maybe they’re not, which would increase the probability even more. But what could have prevented this contact between interstellar species? (The Wikipedia article on the Fermi paradox is brilliant, by the way.)

One hypothesis is called “The Great Filter”

Maybe there is something which prevents life from spreading throughout the universe. It might be somewhere in our future, maybe even closer than we think. Maybe it’s the fate which has already stopped many other civilizations in the past from traveling through space, limiting their existence to the planet on which they came into being.

Here are some of the possibilities currently considered by futurologists. This has been taken directly from Josh Clark’s podcast.

  1. X Risks: Knowable risks like global thermonuclear war, and currently unknowable risks developing spontaneously.
  2. Natural Risks: Meteor showers, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, greenhouse gas effects.
  3. Artificial Intelligence: A superintelligent AGI first destroying our fully computerized society.
  4. Biotechnology: Natural viruses like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu of 1918.
  5. Physics Experiments: Supercolliders which aim to simulate the creation of the universe.
  6. Embracing Catastrophe: Humans ignoring the risks and refusing to coordinate in order to avoid the consequences.

While Much of This Is Out of Our Control, a Lot of It Isn’t

The current epoch is called the Anthropocene and is sometimes defined as the era during which humankind has acquired the power to destroy itself and its own planet. On the brink of possible extinction, it’s easy to lose hope and stop caring. But that’s not the best way, obviously.

Optimists are the ones building and improving things. There’s a famous quote of debated origin about this:

Optimists invent airplanes, pessimists invent parachutes.

This statement sounds valid because it implies that both optimists and pessimists are required for society to develop. But isn’t the pessimist who invents the parachute in fact an optimist who hopes for it to work in case the plane fails? From my point of view, a pessimist is one who would rather opt for not doing a thing or try and stop the invention of the airplane in the first place. One who aims to keep the status quo even though it’s becoming gradually clearer we need to adapt to the changing circumstances.

Pessimism leads to inaction.

Global pandemics, the climate crisis, inflation, recessions, poverty, lack of global health care; the list of societal problems we’re facing is long and daunting. But when you follow the news it’s almost impossible to avoid being confronted with denial of the existence of these problems. Politicians don’t seem to take appropriate measures while populist magazines and other news outlets gather clicks and views by lying and telling everyone it’s not as bad as science says or blaming made-up scape goats, or doing the opposite by artificially inflating mundane problems to sound much too alarming, which both helps no one.

In this current situation it’s easy to feel powerless and lose hope.

When I first met John Linegar, he was a 2-year-old running around in diapers chasing the two cats of the farm he was living on with his family in his native South Africa.

The second time I met him he had just turned nine and easily beat me at a game of chess. Granted, that’s not that hard to do because I suck at chess, but still.

9-year-old John showing me some achievement he made on an iPad
9-year-old John showing me some achievement he made on an iPad

Over the school holidays of our winter of 2022/2023 my family and I visited South Africa and John’s family another time. By now he is 15 years old and ran his first half marathon with me, because I inspired him to do so. One of the possible career plans he’s currently thinking about is becoming a green energy engineer.

He wants to be part of the solution
He wants to be part of the solution

I don’t have much contact with people of his generation, being a 38-year-old dad of four small children. The picture which the media paints about his Generation Z isn’t the most positive one.

They don’t want to work hard, they are just looking out for their own self-interest and aim for happiness, they feel betrayed by earlier generations who created today’s problems into which they were born although those generations were the ones who created the prosperity and wealth by working hard for them. Ungrateful bunch! Entitlement runs deep and now they want to take away our cars and planes, and prohibit eating meat even!

To me, it looks like John wants to be a constructive part of society. Working towards that shared goal of creating and maintaining a well functioning civilization. It was inspiring for me to realize this. I’m sure there are many more young people, who, like him, see the big picture and would like to improve things not just for themselves but for everyone.

Another great and famous example of this is Jimmy Donaldson, better known as YouTuber MrBeast. The man is just 25 years old and as of right now has the world’s biggest following on YouTube with 161 million subscribers. More recently, his video content has focused a lot more heavily on philanthropy by giving away loads of money, medical care, and goods to people in need all over the world. He raised over $20 million to plant trees and over $30 million to help clean up the oceans. He stated that one of his goals is feeding hundreds of millions of people, and that’s not unrealistic for him.

In another positive sociological example, I’d like to introduce a Canadian man who is called Nardwuar the Human Serviette. On his YouTube channel he is spreading positivity by being the best possible interviewer you could imagine. The way he makes the eyes of world stars beam in awe is unparalleled. I can’t help but feel proud to be a human when watching him care so much about his fellow humans. My favorites include the Pharrell Williams, Billie Eilish, and Weird Al.

What’s the End Goal? Should We Optimize for Happiness?

The brilliant philosopher and AI researcher Joscha Bach says that happiness is a cookie the brain bakes itself. Meaning, its origin is intrinsic and can’t be created by outside circumstances, only triggered. Happiness is made of chemicals in our brains which get released when the brain decides to release them. If you want to feel happy, you can make yourself feel happy by several means.

Historian and popular author Yuval Noah Harari says that “evolution doesn’t optimize for happiness” and that our big societal “advancements” like the agricultural revolution quite possibly made our daily lives worse instead of better, just to increase the amount of surviving offspring – an evolutionary benefit for the genes, not the machines which propagate them, which are us humans. If we’re unhappy but still manage to create more offspring, the genes have succeeded.

Which is why we keep falling into the same trap, for example with the industrial revolution. Joscha Bach says we basically burned 100 million years worth of trees just to get everyone plumbing. We did this mainly because our genes tell us to replicate as much as possible.

Our current situation is no different: A few hundred years ago we needed 100% of the workforce employed in the creation of food by means of farming to keep everyone fed. By automatization and other technological advancements like developing fertilizers we have reduced that to just 5-7%. That’s all that’s necessary now to keep everyone on the planet well fed. Why didn’t we stop there?

Because we wanted more.

With that we developed a lot of jobs which aren’t required just for our survival. And in some we may have lost sight of the big picture, because they seem to work against the common goals. My feeling is that many of those counterproductive jobs are still around. But how to spot those? How can we know we’re working in a field which makes no sense for humankind, which helps no one and should therefore just be stopped?

I think that many of us sometimes have a feeling of meaninglessness about their chosen profession. We’re asking ourselves questions like “Is what I’m doing professionally really making any difference?” – ”What’s my purpose here?”, and with no clearly definable answers, motivation dwindles until we just do a half-assed job until we’re too old for it.

In order to answer these questions for ourselves, we need to go a level up.

What’s the meaning of life? What’s our purpose? Where can we draw inspiration from?

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  • This was one of the best articles I've read so far in telling about a race. I couldn't put it down. Your details were so awesome. You made New York just come alive.

    Betty J.

  • Great review, enjoyed reading it and recognize lots off related subjects and hurtles. I’m amazed by all your running and races well done.

    Andre S.

  • Great article! I've read so many long blogs only to get bored in the middle as I suffer terribly from ADD and move on to other things. Yours has been one of few that held my attention all the way to the end.

    Chae B.

  • Your good humor and ease in telling stories make this blog a really cool space. Nice review.


  • Amazing effort Tim, well done! Thank you for taking the time to write down your thoughts, feelings and memories from the event. There’s always something to learn from your posts and this one was no exception!! Another cracking read.

    Tom K.

  • What a ride! Surely the race, but also reading about it. Thanks for taking the time to write up such a detailed report, almost feel like I was there.

    Till F.

Over thousands of years, people have derived meaning for their current lives from being promised a better existence in the afterlife. That has been a stable structure which led to our ancestors stopping to question what they’re doing with their lives here on Earth, and conveniently gave meaning to their suffering as well. That’s called a theocracy.

But this system is on its way out. Many societies all over the globe have moved away towards other systems when it became more clear that people would no longer eat up the story and started demanding improving quality of life for themselves right now too as opposed to just for the ruling class which made up these rules.

In a sense, theocracy has been a layer of obstruction stopping us from going deeper.

In my humble opinion, the most useful and therefore best idea for answering the question “What’s the meaning of life?” I have heard stems from Joscha Bach again, a cognitive scientist and AI researcher who has worked at MIT and Harvard.

He leads us back to the definition of life itself in order to answer that question. Life in its simplest form is the single cell. A self-contained organism which can multiply by creating structure out of the entropic molecules and inorganic matter surrounding it. It is creating and maintaining a balanced structure from the chaos.

And since humans are made of cells, the relation between a single cell and a complex human being made of cells is similar to the relation of a single human being to civilization made up of many humans. Each one of us acts as a single cell in the complex and connected organism that is humankind.

Here’s the answer.

Life’s purpose might therefore be to create and maintain a stable structure from the chaos around us.

So we can use this to ask ourselves if what we’re doing in our professional and social lives helps that cause. What type of work will lead to a more stable civilization and what won’t? And what won’t make a dent at all?

Obviously it’s a whole different thing to translate that into reality. But as a guiding compass, I think it helps. And it’s the optimistic thing to do.

On The Topic of Hope

On the surface, optimism can easily be confused with hoping for the best possible outcome. I think we should be clear and distinguish between the two. Optimism involves action. Hope doesn’t. Optimism means to be convinced that our actions will have a positive outcome when compared to doing nothing at all. We will derive motivation from optimism, not from hope.

Oliver Burkeman writes in his book Four Thousand Weeks:

But in reality, [hope] is a curse. To hope for a given outcome is to place your faith in something outside yourself, and outside the current moment – the government, for example, or God, or the next generation of activists, or just ‘the future’ – to make things all right in the end.

And further quoting Pema Chödrön, hope is like relating to life as if ‘there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one’.

Is More Information the Key?

Acquiring as much information as possible during our lifetimes will act as a basis for making better decisions. But we shouldn’t confuse having lots of information with being an end to itself. Author Derek Sivers said:

If more information were the solution, we would all be billionaires with perfect abs.

Information changes nothing without action. So does hope or optimism. What matters is taking action. Information and optimism both helps. Optimists are the people who get stuff done because their mindset says it will make a difference if they do.

Sam Harris said on the Lex Fridman Podcast that worrying doesn’t get us anywhere. Either there’s a situation we can control, then we just need to do whatever we can about it right now, or it’s a situation we cannot control, in which case worrying also won’t change anything.

I would like to end this post by once more stating that it is my belief that we should all work a lot harder to identify the problems our society and our planet faces, as well as be a part of the solutions to the problems within our control.

What do you think?

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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