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Published on
2 February 2021
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#updates

Hooray! Everything is terrible.

Why we all work better together when we contribute complementary skills, and why critical optimism is the best of all possible worldviews for our times.

I hate to admit this, but I’m a glass half empty kind of girl. For a long time, CandideExternal link was my favourite book. Some days I wake up feeling like something terrible is going to happen. I keep my expectations tempered. I’d rather be suprised when things go right than gutted when they don’t.

I’d like to be more optimistic. Optimists live longerExternal link, make better choicesExternal link, are more resilient against psychological stressorsExternal link, and just generally handle their shit better. But optimism is one of those things that’s baked into your genes and your history, and whilst you can, apparently, become more optimistic, most of us are wired a certain way and tend to stay there. So I guess I’m kind of a pessimist.

Matt, on the other hand, is the quintessential optimist—a bouncing, joyful golden retriever for whom every day is sunny, even if it’s raining out.

This was intended as a joke, but it's probably the best representation of our respective personalities stock imagery can provide.

This difference between us has been especially prominent over the last year, as the world has been increasingly chaotic. I was convinced there’d be no more travel for a long time (points me) and Matt would swear a vaccine would be available soon (points Matt).

In many ways, we’re polar opposites who approach the world through entirely different lenses. He’s calm whilst I’m exuberant verging on manic. I like building things, he takes pleasure in using a demolition hammer. He tends to focus on details whilst I’m more conceptual. I love starting projects and he likes to actually finish them.

Before we started Octopus Think, I spent eight years running a business solo, and it would have been extremely challenging for me to imagine ever having shared responsibility and control of the business with another human being.

But Matt and I have been doing this thing together for over a year now, whilst living basically in the same room, 24/7, and we just don’t clash that often.

It’s these different outlooks that really mean we work well together—both personally and professionally. We have many complementary skills, but we don’t really have a huge amount of overlap. Together, we cover a lot of ground without really butting heads. We intersect just enough to have a shared understanding of what we’re working toward.

And in the areas where our Venn diagrams connect, there tends to be a clear sense of ownership. For instance, I know some JavaScript (my chart above is a lie), but this is so clearly Matt’s domain that I don’t feel the need to argue with him if he tells me I’m doing something wrong. (He’s making what I can only assume are React jokes as I write this, but they aren’t very funny.)

We spend a ridiculous amount of time discussing everything in great detail, from how we spend the business’ money to how we design an interface. We often go on long walks and discuss some aspect of what we’re working on. By the time we get back—often hours later—we both have a more nuanced understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve, and how to solve it. I call these “arguments”, but Matt—ever the semantic nitpicker—warns me that makes it sound like we’re bickering. He calls them “debates” or “discussions”. Sure. 😉

Whatever you call them, they’re critical to us working well together. We come to better conclusions in spite of what might be otherwise limited experience, because we’re considering a wider breadth of perspective than either of us could do alone. This is likely part of why diverse teams perform betterExternal link. It’s also why, were we ever in the position to hire someone, we’d prioritise someone whose lived experience was far from our own. (Yet another subject discussed via a long walk.)

So when my inherent pessimism collides with Matt’s unbridled optimism, I think it actually gives us a more complete, more nuanced outlook on the world.

Together, we’re uplifted enough to imagine a better future, to drive toward new work, and to continue forging ahead even when things get difficult—but we’re also critical enough to identify when something isn’t working, when we need to reconsider an approach, or when a decision could potentially cause harm. I used to refer to us, together, as a cautious optimist. I think a better term might be a critical optimist.

There’s no time like the present for critical optimism. There are signals that maybe, just maybe, the world is turning a number of corners toward a better future—but we also need to be mindful of all the forces that got us here in the first place. Especially those of us working in technology.

It might be the best of all possible worldsExternal link… but let’s really examine it critically first, just to be sure, okay?

A photo of a young redhead wearing sunglasses and smiling.
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Written by

Sarah London Semark

Chief Design Octopus. Advocate for the user. Believes in constructive criticism. Buys books based on their covers.

Octopus Think

Octopus Think is a design & development duo based in Scotland and Portugal. We build smart, inclusive, usable digital products that make people’s lives better.

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