Saturday, 4 December 2010

The strategy of hope

‘Remember: Hope is not a strategy!’

The first time I came across this statement I was filling in a form at work, justifying a procurement method (such fun!). It was fair enough in the context, given the amount of investment involved; hoping that it turned out to save money certainly wouldn’t be enough to make that happen.

For some reason it stuck in my head. There was something true but sort of depressing about it, I felt. It illustrated the difference between what counts as strategy in the world of business, and what we more broadly refer to as strategic in everyday life.

The depressing part comes in the implication that there is no point in hoping. If strategy is what works, and hope is ineffectual, then it’s a waste of energy. It might even obscure the reality: if we hope everything will be okay, will we still do all we can do actually make it so? It has even been pointed out recently that depressed people, i.e. those who are not hopeful, have a more realistic view of the world. This may be useful from the point of view of making rational choices, but it’s not much fun.

Arguing from the premise that ‘hope is not a strategy’ to the conclusion that ‘hope should be jettisoned’ is obviously fallacious. Hope may not make a better outcome more likely in the way acting on a decent strategy might, but it performs other very important functions for human beings. It engenders positivity; it makes us carry on; it gives us a bit more strength even if we are facing grim odds.

And that’s the funny thing about hope. It isn’t logical or rational in the classical sense. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘I never gave up hope,’ when they have emerged from a situation that looked utterly doomed, even to them? Maintaining hope in these kinds of situations may require some self-deception, some chosen delusion, which in itself looks irrational. But in fact, choosing to delude yourself and remain hopeful seems like a very good strategy for a human being.

So, the statement ‘hope is a strategy’ makes some sense, too. It may not be acceptable in the context of justifying a money-saving procurement method to a business strategy unit, but as a strategy for staying happy as a human being it has pretty reliable precedents. There are lots of good reasons to make yourself hopeful, even when the odds seem to be against you.

We are told, by some popular psychology pundits, that we can choose to be happy rather than waiting for it to happen to us. This can seem like a tall order. Choosing hope, on the other hand, feels easier, a smaller step; but it is a strategic one that can lead to being happier, even when things don’t work out the way we hoped.

I’m off out now to collect my latest set of Diana photos from the developers. I know, deep down, that half of them will be rubbish, but I am filled with hope that they will be good all the same. This part is almost as enjoyable as finding the one or two prints I love.


  1. Hope is part of being human.

    The mountaineer, Joe Simpson, broke his legs at the summit of Siula Grande in Patagonia and crawled to safety after his friend had to cut the rope whist lowering him down the final slopes. His book, Touching The Void is about the polarities of hope and despair; hope wins through.

    Years later he wrote about the need for sympathy as well as hope - criticising the clinical attitude of high altitude climbers who had abandoned or even climbed past storm victims whom they described as 'beyond hope'.

  2. I'm familiar with the story, and it's a perfect illustration of hope despite the bleakest odds. As for climbers leaving those beyond hope, they also seem to be abandoning other perceived human virtues, such as nobility and generosity, yet I know I'd be swayed a bit by arguments from rationality in these cases, at least post hoc. A philosopher's dilemma.