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Aficionado's Curse / Pessimistic Optimism

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 19 October 2011.
Planet PHP

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I like beer. I mean, I really like it. I've tasted many unique, special, rare, and extremely old beers. I even have Beer Judging credentials. I would go as far as to say that I'm a "beer aficionado." I find the idea of a cheap, poorly-made beer (especially when there are superior alternatives on hand) to be almost repulsive.

I know aficionados in other fields: wine, vodka, scotch, cheese, movies, music, specific genres of music, woodworking, home electronics, office design, and even one guy I might consider a dog food aficionado.

These people, like myself when it comes to beer, often suffer from what I call "Aficionado's Curse." This syndrome affects experts in many fields, and prevents them from truly enjoying the full gamut of their medium. They are able to truly appreciate the utmost quality, but are turned off by the bottom shelf. Others (non-aficionados) are perfectly happy consuming the most readily available items and occasionally treating themselves to something fancy from the middle.

Consider someone who is completely immersed in the world of hand-made Swiss timepieces. Now, consider that person wearing a Happy-Meal-derived digital watch with a made-in-China plastic band. Unless they're trying to perfect their ironic hipster look, the cheap watch likely wouldn't fly.

In high school, long before I considered that this thing might have a name, I had a media teacher who was a film aficionado. He once told our class "When you start making movies-no matter the length-your world will change. You will stop simply being entertained by what is on the screen before your eyes, and instead will wonder how they did that, or you might marvel at the complexity of a specific shot. You'll still enjoy film, but in a different way." This nicely sums up Aficionado's Curse.

Maybe ignorance is bliss.

In a phenomenon similar to Aficionado's Curse, I've noticed a trend that cloaks optimism in pessimism. Unfortunately, I am a victim of this, and I try to keep it reined in, but I often fail.

I have very high expectations for thingsa nearly everything, in fact. I think that high expectations are generally a good thing, as so many things are-shall we say-of a quality less than the highest.

I expect machines to work properly, traffic to flow, computers to perform at reasonable levels, food to taste good, service to be quick and friendly, events to respect their schedules and other similar things. More often than not, though, I am let down by this unmaintainable level of optimism. The bad part is that in my letdown, I often find myself complaining (or if I've managed to keep it under control, not complaining) about such things. Not because the thing I've just witnessed is completely broken, but more like because it's sub-optimal in some way. These complaints are (reasonably, I admit) perceived as pessimism. My optimism has precipitated as pessimism.

I think this happens to smart people quite a bit. I've worked with people who are extremely unpleasant, but also extremely kind and forgiving. This may have been due to the scenario described above.

I saw this on Fred Wilson's blog a while back, and I think it's relevant:

"sometimes we make money with brilliant people who are easy to get along with, most often we make money with brilliant people who are hard to get along with, but we rarely make money with normal people who are easy to get along with."

One of the greatest things I learned from Chris when working at OmniTI was something that he didn't intentionally teach me (at least not as part of my job): it's OK to be let down, but complaining about it doesn't often breed positive change. I've tried to apply this to my public persona in the past few years, and at risk of sounding like a complaint, I think we'd all do well to follow Chris's lead, and strive to be brilliant people who are also easy to get along with.