One of Tim Ferriss’ mentors gave him an adage to live by: be a skeptic, not a cynic. In this conception, skepticism is positioned as a healthy measure of doubt and cynicism is posited as a poisonous pessimism. But why? Is that true? What’s so bad about being a cynic? The answer has to do with narrative selection.
Imagine reality as a near-infinite data set. The narratives we live by are determined, firstly, by the data points we allocate significance to, and secondly, by our interpretation of this selective salience. The cynic imbues all the data points he selects with a bleak filter. At the core of every event he perceives and every interpretation he crafts is a certain negativity. The birth of a child is the beginning of a child’s journey, the first step towards its inevitable encounter with pain and suffering. Generosity is ill-concealed selfishness, a form of societal and hierarchical posturing. Enjoyment is pleasure run amok. Friendship is an alliance formed out of mutual self-interest. Sacrifice is not for the good of the others, but for the good of a person’s self-image. Every act, word and thought is, for the cynic, a manifestation of such bitter truths.
Of course, the cynic’s interpretations can be reversed. We can choose to see different things, or choose to see the same things, yet decide to cast them in a different light. But what we cannot do is isolate reality from narrative. We cannot not select a narrative. Uninterpreted data is just noise. To extract signal from it, we must choose what constitutes signal and select how we will interpret what we extract. This introduces many biases and blindspots, but it is the unavoidable consequence of being a conscious, sentient being living in a world we struggle to understand.
I suppose what Ferriss’ mentor is really saying is that because we can choose what we focus on, it’s better to focus on the good, to put a positive spin on otherwise neutral events. But I don’t know whether I agree with that. Perhaps I’m a cynic at heart?