Add it to the list: Optimism is over. At the risk of sounding pessimistic (thereby guaranteeing you won't read any further, because however lousy things have become, no one likes a pessimist — even one who's right), it's no friggin' wonder! The layoffs, buyouts, and bankruptcies of the past year are starting to look like the good old days. Business sucks to such a degree that unbridled optimism — the kind of wild, harebrained zest to rule the world that was de rigueur way back in the 1990s — is now just a sign that your meds aren't working.
Consider the tragic case of Harold W., former executive at one of the nation's top packaged-pastry-and-hosiery conglomerates, who was let go for remarks made to the press that suggested he was unconcerned about the impending depression — I mean, the current ongoing economic adjustment. When grilled about the direction Harold W. expected his company to take after its shares had lost 50% of their value in the past year, he said, "I'm no Pollyanna, but I believe without a doubt that things are looking up for us. What is the one thing women who've been laid off need in order to find work? Panty hose. And what happens when they're passed over for the new position? They buy doughnuts, and lots of them. So I'm feeling optimistic."
What got Harold W.'s ass handed to him on a platter was not the borderline misogynistic, sexist-pig slant, but his final brainless utterance: "I'm feeling optimistic." These days no one with a brain feels anything resembling true optimism.
So what to do? The Spy suggests Optimesse, the optimism substitute for the new economy — and the only authentic attitude for our time. Optimesse feels like real optimism and looks like real optimism, but it will never make you look like a fathead. Optimesse is for people who feel terrible but know that other people only want to be around optimists, or rather, optimessts. It's a fine line we're walking in these awful times: No one wants to be around pessimists, but genuine optimists appear to be too stupid to know what's really going on. Real optimists aren't just suspect — we actively dislike them in the current climate.
Cynical, you say? Why, yes! That's the secret ingredient in Optimesse. But Optimesse isn't just a simple coping mechanism. No, it's so much more. Optimesse, if adopted by discreet realists and closet pessimists everywhere, can — yes! — change the world! If we can all agree to be optimesstic, that is, if we can agree to fake it, maybe we can fool the economy into thinking that we're on the upswing! (The exclamation point, by the way, is the symbol of false enthusiasm, the trademark of Optimesse!)
How do you recognize Optimesse when you see it? Optimesse is two sales guys meeting at a bar for tequila shots the evening of the day they've been laid off, and agreeing by unspoken, mutual consent to brag about their now non-existent accounts. How to make Optimesse a part of your daily life? Treat your underwater stock options as if they're still worth something: Keep them in your safe-deposit box and out of the bottom of the kitty-litter tray. Pay attention only to the economic indicators that show that everything is back on track! One practicing optimesst pointed to the increasing number of Heineken empties in the Dumpster behind her apartment building and said, "Hey, it could be Bud Light!"
Think of it this way: Optimesse, which some call fake optimism, is the fake orgasm of the new economy. You don't believe me? Try this: Enthuse wildly about the performance of your mutual funds in a crowded restaurant, and see how many people tell the waiter, "I'll have what she's having."
This is the latest episode in the Spy's continuing saga, "Working Behind Enemy Lines." You can find the entire Spy chronicles on the Web (www.askthespy.com).
A version of this article appeared in the October 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.