Some of us may have more of an affinity for tracing our family lineage back in time than others. Now, with the help of companies like Ancestry or even 23 and me, we’re able to do this with a little less effort than in the past. Or, we may be lucky enough to have others in the family that have taken care to curate photographs and other information which help us connect where we find ourselves within the history of our families. Over the years and generations we’ve been lucky enough to have family members collect and pass on bits and pieces of our history. We came to learn that along the way our family adopted a motto and developed a crest. Countries, provinces, states, teams, and businesses, too, have crests and mottos. For example, the provincial motto for Alberta is fortis et liber which translates to strong and free.
These made their way onto silverware and China which, in turn, continue to be passed down within the family. The actual origin story of the motto isn’t certain but assumed to be a response to struggle and an effort to keep the chins up for members of the family enduring difficult times. The Latin words “Spe Melioris” are our family motto. They loosely translate into hope for better. It’s a nice message that has stood the test of time.
Unfortunately, optimism doesn’t seem to be a default for many of us. Pessimism pervades the news. We’re told of problems and how things are getting worse. Pessimists declare themselves as realists. Jason Crawford wrote an article titled, Why Pessimism Sounds Smart. Crawford notes that optimists believe that solutions are possible to problems even though those solutions may not yet exist. That is, they have faith in our ability to solve and create new things. This inherently is a belief in something that doesn’t yet exist which can seem flaky. To a pessimist, if they can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. It’s easier to see the problem than it is to create a solution. A concept offered by Peter Thiel which he refers to as “technological stagnation” reflects an inability of those (who are considered pessimists) to imagine the future to be different from today. For many of us, our worldview mirrors the reality of today. Not being able to accept that tomorrow may be vastly different closes us to possibilities. Pessimists take the easy road of looking where we are while optimists imagine what’s possible. The critics are seen somehow as competent. Crawford notes that in the investment world pessimists may sound accurate and smart whereas optimists take risks and make money as optimists adopt the view expressed by Wayne Dyer when he wrote, “You’ll see it when you believe it.” Solutions come to those that are looking for them with belief in possibility.
In The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal introduces her readers to the work of a social worker that offered support to the downtrodden looking for help with welfare and trying to find work. The people being helped were hard done by on many levels. They had little resources or community support from which to rely. They were close to homelessness. The financial assistance received was barely enough to pay for food or rent. It couldn’t cover both. Getting a job was tough because of other commitments these people had. Part of the training programs offered involved learning about stress. A way that people are introduced to thinking about stress is to offer them a list of life events and ask them if they’ve experienced them. Different events carry different scores which represent the amount of stress the event has. Divorce or death in the family, for example, are pretty high level stress events. So, too, is pregnancy. A move, job transition, unemployment, or handling the holidays are other life events that carry their own level of stress. The higher the score across events experienced, the higher the stress one experiences. The underlying assumption is that high stress offers problems for health.
The questionnaire may be useful for developing an awareness of where stress is being experienced. However, for those that seem inundated with nothing but stress in each corner of their lives, it’s less helpful to highlight these pain points. Much of stress is the result of circumstance which may not be within our control to manage. We can’t influence death in the family or work stress. Money problems can’t be waved away. To be told that we’re experiencing levels of stress which aren’t healthy and that the solution is to reduce the stress to which we’re exposed isn’t terribly inspiring. What is one with limited resources supposed to do? These types of exercises, though well-intended, can result in discouraging participants. It can push them further from hopelessness into helplessness. Professor McGonigal writes, “What message does it send when we tell people it is not OK to live a stressful life? The truth is that most people don’t choose the stress in their lives; they deal with it…. When people can’t control what is stressful about their lives, how does it help to tell them that the reality of their lives is unacceptable?”
Teaching that you’re stuck doesn’t help. It hurts. Fostering a belief in a brighter tomorrow, Spe Melioris, is the starting point. Recognizing reality can be paralyzing. It can frustrate and freeze our efforts. The opposite message is needed. Instead of trying to encourage reducing unavoidable stress, we should encourage others to see stress as our body helping us prepare to face something that is important to us. The social worker McGonigal writes about wanted to support her struggling clients by helping them believe that they had some ability to make a difference in improving their lives. She taught them that they were their greatest resource. How they thought about the challenges they were facing would influence how they would approach things.
Harry Kemp offered, “The poor man is not he who is without a cent, but he who is without a dream.” Spe Melioris is about having a dream, a hope for a better tomorrow. It is adopting an optimistic outlook which helps make today tolerable. As Brett Cyrgalis writes in Golf’s Holy War “Thinking that good things will happen is a conscious decision. And doing so helps—a lot.” By rethinking stress from something to avoid to a tool to use to energize their efforts, individuals were emboldened to act in their interests. McGonigal’s social worker noted, “Rethinking stress empowers them. It changes their beliefs about what they are capable of and what they can accomplish.”
Hope for better days is a deep driver in decision making. After all, what’s behind a decision to buy a home? It’s not that you need somewhere to live as there’s other ways to put a roof over your head without purchasing a home. The decision to buy a home is a belief that it will be worth more in the future than it is today. It’s a bet on the future. We do this also with passive investment methods. Passive investors put their savings into funds that bet on the market as a whole instead of specific stocks. It suggests a bet on a future that will be better without knowing exactly how it will be better. A belief in a brighter future is essential in order for us to sacrifice something today. Any type of savings is done in order to prepare for tomorrow. David Bahnsen in There’s No Free Lunch writes of the importance of optimism, “The proper allocation of resources in a society can never treat saving as an evil, for without saving there is no investment; and without investment, there is no future.”
Moreover, Spe Melioris reflects reality as it has developed in the Western World over the past several thousand years. It’s been a steady march of progress. Not always pretty and certainly not perfect, but progress nonetheless. For example, just forty years ago 40% of the world’s population lived below the UN defined poverty level. Today less than 10% of the world’s population falls below this level. That’s a tremendous improvement. Books like Hans Rosling’s Factfulness detail numerous ways the world is better today and continuing to improve for great swaths of people. On many metrics, both locally and internationally, the world is a better place today than it was 50, 100, and more years ago. Lifespans are substantially higher, living standards better, education improved, and violent crimes less. More people are living longer, better lives in many parts of the world today than in recent generations. Sure, there remain problems, but progress has been plentiful and pervasive to most corners of the world. It’s more than reasonable to believe tomorrow may continue to be better than today going forward. Hope is pretty powerful, but there’s something still more powerful.
Writing the foreword to John Bogle’s book Enough, former President Bill Clinton offers an impressionable experience he had as an undergraduate at Georgetown. Clinton recalls a history professor noting the two pillars upon which Western civilization was founded. First, an unshakeable belief that tomorrow would be better than today. This is our Spe Melioris, a hope that tomorrow will be better. However, it was the second pillar presented by President Clinton’s professor that resonated to the young Clinton. Second, the professor noted, it was our individual and personal responsibility to ensure that tomorrow would become better. Hope for the future is one thing, but owning responsibility for ensuring that we do our part to improve things not just for ourselves but for others is the type of mindset that has advanced us so dramatically over the last few hundred years. Spe Melioris and hoping for better allows hope to be our rope upon which we can grope pulling ourselves to progress. It’s encouragement to help us help ourselves. Embracing this perspective helps us accept and endure where we are today with the belief that we’re doing our part to make tomorrow better. We’re able to tolerate today while having a sense of purpose to participate in preparing for the future.
Whereas passive investing reflects an optimistic view of the future, active investing suggests not just a belief that tomorrow will be better than today but that I have some influence in either understanding or acting to make it so. A belief in becoming better underlies the perspective identified by Peter Thiel that seems to be embedded in the souls of striving and enterprising individuals which Thiel calls definite optimists. This approach is seen in those that believe my actions matter always. It’s both a belief in a brighter tomorrow and an acceptance of responsibility to contribute to creating it. At the buffet of life, Thiel’s definite optimists are selecting a serving of hope coupled with a heaping of helping themselves create the future.
Where we are and where we’ll be aren’t both matters of inevitability. Consider the countries of Norway and Venezuela. They have both been blessed with similar amounts of oil and gas reserves. However, the living standards and quality of life for the citizens of these two countries couldn’t be more different. It’s not blind luck that has created this separation. One country, Norway, has made better decisions as a society than the other, Venezuela. Norwegians have embraced responsibility for managing their natural resources and have used economic gains to build a productive and supportive society for as many people as possible. Their past efforts have created the present they are enjoying and their present decisions continue to put them in a position where they will carry forward their prosperity for future generations. Progress is not about luck. Our decisions and efforts are contributing factors to our future. The possibility of permanent progress is real where we work to do our part.
A posture of positivity coupled with proactivity is what we’re encouraging. Spe Melioris plus you and what you’re willing to do. Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise used three words to communicate the responsibility for making things happen. Captain Picard offered “Make it so” as his direction… Ryan Holiday writes in an email titled 35 Lessons On The Way to 35 Years Old that “despair and cynicism only contribute to the problem. Hope, good faith, a belief in your own agency? These are the traits that drive the change that everyone else has declared to be impossible.” Yes, things can be better, and I can contribute to making it so. Hope isn’t a strategy. We have to make it so. Better get busy making things better. Starting a business and starting a family are both examples of both believing in brighter futures and doing one’s part to make it so. President Clinton’s Georgetown professor’s two ideas lie at the heart of business strategy. Strategy is about a belief that tomorrow will be better than today and our strategy becomes our plan for making it so. What are you working on today that will improve your business for tomorrow?