The Dangers of Ungrounded Hopefulness

I’m sure you’ve heard this idiom before: ‘Everything in Moderation’. Too much of anything, even an amazing thing like hopefulness, can sometimes be a bad thing. Despite my and e-vaughn’s calls for optimism in basically everything you do and critique, a healthy selective dose of skepticism can keep one grounded in their expectations and reality.  Is that hypocritical? We don’t think so.

Skepticism ≠ Pessimism.

In fact, skepticism is an important founding principle of any scientific work. Perhaps a more fine-tuned way of looking at skepticism is that you should have grounded hopefulness; be hopeful and optimistic, but base that on a foundation that you have reason to believe in and evidence to support.

Be Hopeful and optimistic, but base that on a foundation that you have reason to believe in and evidence to supportoptimist_pessimist

Growing up in a moderately religious family, my Dad always used to repeat a phrase that has stuck with me: “Pray to God and Swim to Shore.” Searching online now, it looks like this is based on a Russian Proverb: “Pray to God but continue to Row to Shore.” The lesson I took from this is that it’s great to have faith in something, but ultimately you have the agency and responsibility to invoke any real action. In almost all cases: by all means be hopeful, but ground that hopefulness in something real. I had an experience recently that gave me a great reminder of this.

If you’re an adult, I’m betting there’s a pretty good chance you can identify with the story I’m about to tell. If you find yourself thinking “hmm, this sounds familiar,” well then we’d love to know what your reaction was, and how you navigated the situation. If this is completely new to you, maybe I can save you some time, money, and even your most important relationships. Here’s a brief overview of what I experienced:

The Set UpFirst Contact

Someone you know — probably someone you’d say is an acquaintance — either cold calls, emails, texts, or otherwise gets in contact with you out of the blue. They say they’re part of a growing industry, and they’ve either looked at your LinkedIn or followed your career somehow. They tell you that they’ve got an opportunity that might be perfect for you, and they might even compliment your social media presence, your glowing personality, or even your work ethic.


Who wouldn’t be convinced?


The Set Up, Part IIThe Harmless Phone Call

Let’s say you’re a hopeful homie. Maybe you’re entirely happy with your current work situation but, by rule, feel compelled to explore new opportunities. Maybe you are feeling a little stuck in your routines, feel like you can’t move up in your job, or could just use some extra cash on the side for that next trip, the holidays, or are expecting an upcoming change in the family. It’s possible that purely out of curiosity or respect for your acquaintance (or close friend, if you’re so ‘lucky’), you agree to a quick chat. If nothing else, you’ll reconnect with a friend and, hey, networking in today’s job environment is a huge deal.


Fist-bumping your way to big money!!


The Set Up, Part III

To keep going with the hypotheticals, let’s say you had a pretty great call with this person, and they like, totally get you.  Okay, maybe everything they said didn’t apply to you, but it was probably no less accurate than your average fortune cookie or weekly horoscope, and you decide to roll with it, likely against your better judgment (I’m hoping you don’t actually religiously follow the advice of your fortune cookies). What could possibly go wrong? You agree to meet your old pal’s mentor, advisor, hero, or other positively-attributed wise-sounding person.

Now, maybe things genuinely seem fine at this point. Like any other interview, the mentor probably controlled the conversation, gathering information about your current position and your past. When he or she started asking about your aspirations and goals, your ideology about results vs. process, and your willingness to endure temporary hardship for permanent results, you may have started to wonder what exactly was going on. But at the same time, it’s honestly kind of refreshing to not get asked, for the hundredth time, “what is your greatest weakness?”

It might seem like you’re getting in ‘on the ground floor’ of something that has ‘growth potential’, and other ‘businessy businessing’ type phrases. You know, circling the wagons and looping back around on high-pri tasks.

In the meeting, they’ll almost definitely make it sound like an exclusive club. If you have to work a little harder to get in, or just feel like you’re working harder, the more you’ll appreciate the chance when given to you, and the harder you’ll work for the people who give you the chance.  That’s the founding idea behind many hazing rituals (that are often also predatory and harmful) practiced throughout the Greek system in colleges and universities.

The Hook

At this point, you probably find yourself either vigorously nodding along to everything they say — or — extremely skeptical. 

  • Interviewer: “Are you feeling stuck on the corporate ladder?”

yesmanYou: “That’s reasonable… Maybe I don’t, but if I was on one, I could imagine that,” you might think.


  • Interviewer: “Do you think you could achieve outlandish 5, 10, and 20 year goals on your current trajectory?”

yesmanYou: “Well no, but… There’s a reason they’re outlandish. But dammit, they sound goooood.” runs through your mind.


And the kicker:

  • Interviewer: “If you could work hard at something for a few years, and end up with assets that make money for you, you could achieve financial freedom!”



Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s FREEDOM TIME!

You: “Woooo! Sign me up! I wanna take a magical ride on that FINANCIAL FREEDOM EAGLE!”

Images of an eagle soaring through red, white, and blue skies, with commanding eagle-y screeches in the background might play in your head.



The Realization (hopefully) 

Alright, maybe you can tell, but this is where I got a little suspicious.

Didn’t I agree to talk about a job opportunity? When did this turn into the plot of a poorly conceived Matrix sequel that stars Donald Trump as the dude offering you the path to financial success by breaking out of the ‘real world’ of gainful employment.

Not only do these ‘opportunities’ target those who are hopelessly Hopeful, but also those who truly are looking for an out…or have insecurities.

But then, that’s kind of the point. Not only do these ‘opportunities’ target those who are hopelessly Hopeful, but also those who truly are looking for an out, some side cash, or have insecurities about their current positions, whether employed or not.

What your friend or acquaintance is likely talking about is Network Marketing, Multi-level Marketing, Direct Selling, or a straight up Pyramid Scheme. If you’re mad that I waited THIS long to tell you, well then, you know how I felt!


Ok… so…. What’s the job?

Your contact is attempting to involve you in what many deem to be a very shady business. This is a business that is almost certainly destined, upon gaining any measure of success, to be investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as a Pyramid Scheme. What makes a Pyramid Scheme?

If it involves directly selling products to friends, family, and strangers (think knives, makeup, nutritional supplements): well, very few people are successful and ultimately you may pay money for the opportunity to offer the products. There are plenty of resources for looking into the legitimacy of these companies.

If it involves recruiting your friends, family, and far-removed acquaintances for ‘an exciting opportunity with up-and-coming businesses,’ then you might be involved in network marketing, or even a pyramid scheme. Essentially, the idea is to build a pyramid of contacts below you and those contacts aggregate commissions for you. Yeah, it’s hard to not describe it as a Pyramid, just by definition. You still might be forced to pay an introductory fee for services, training, or products.

money_pyramidThe key warning sign of something actually illegal, is if people generally get paid from recruiting contacts rather than selling products, per the FTC’s website.


If it involves recruiting your friends, family, and far-removed acquaintances for ‘an exciting opportunity with up-and-coming businesses,’ then you might be involved in network marketing, or even a pyramid scheme.

My Experience

Now at this point, I should say that I’ve been approached by two contacts for such purposes in the past. One person several years ago was incredibly lazy, and simply shot what seemed like a copy-pasted Facebook message to me. It was painfully obvious. Word to the network marketers out there: at least try and seem like you yourself are interested, buds. The other person who contacted me a couple weeks ago, though, is someone I respect for their approach.

This second person was direct (to a point), polite, welcoming, legitimately seemed interested in my life, and is a likeable guy. I intentionally made ‘The Set Up Trilogy’ that I wrote about above pretty egregious, but in the ‘fog of opportunity,’ such as it is, it was actually exciting to think of myself gaining experience in my field outside working hours while making some potential valuable connections for my future. But then, that’s the Hopeful Homie who gave his time to explore a potential opportunity talking. More on that inner voice later.

The Decision

Faced with the reality of the business, you’ll have to make a decision. In the book my contact loaned me, ‘The Business of the 21st Century,’ the author advises that just 3 out of 10 or so people will agree to further contact when hearing a network marketing pitch.

By the way, I’m loathe to even mention the book here. It was actually awful. Countless times, the author mentions that he was a C student, and trust me, I believe him.  The reviews for the book are shockingly (or maybe not so shockingly) split. Many people claim it’s an easy-to-read (definitely true) exposé on personal finance. Others rightfully call out that it’s about 80% fluff and offers few details, just like the job pitch itself… I hope you’re sensing the trend.

Either way, the decision can be a tricky one. If you’re without other financial options, I can honestly understand the allure, although I still wouldn’t recommend taking the chance. If you’re legitimately not worried about potentially alienating friends or seeming mildly crazy to new people you meet, maybe you’ll do alright.

If you’re legitimately not worried about potentially alienating friends or seeming mildly crazy to new people you meet, maybe you’ll do alright.

If, however, you’ve been spooked by the fact that literally every friend you ask for advice has responded with, “so it’s a pyramid scheme,” or are just leary of the risks involved, you have the lovely task of telling your acquaintance that everyone’s time has been wasted. Fear not though, it’s probable they’ve heard it at least 6 out 10 other times this week.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be easy. A lot of the glowing things I had to say about my contact – the second person who pitched this to me – was directly because of his response when I turned it down. Thankfully, he was gracious for my honesty, understanding of my stance, and very politely defensive of the company that sponsors him.

The Aftermath

e-vaughn and I debated this for a bit.  Why do these pitches work on people?  Taking the actual money-making prospects out of the picture for a minute, there was something deep in me that had a hard time remaining realistic and skeptical in the face of such prosperous dreams.

My first thoughts were of introspection: do I care that much about money? Of course, they framed it as ‘being able to do whatever you want with your life because of financial freedom’. So fill in whatever that means to you, and you have a pretty widely appealing statement.  After all, don’t forget this image dancing in your head:

When I thought back to the in-person meeting, I realized that they asked me about something I dreamed of doing in the future. My response was ‘I think I’d still really like to run a psych lab at some point!’ I was pleased that I sounded excited by the field, and that my answer wasn’t ‘uhmmm, to still have my job, since it’s so awesome,’ which is actually true. Their response to my answer was muted; I think they may have expected fast cars, big houses, and other lofty status symbols. So maybe I was driven to the pitch by my own internal drive for advancement in my field, by the feeling that if I have the energy for another pursuit, I better damn well take it on before I’m too tired, old, or otherwise preoccupied. 

But do these pitches tug at those who are overly optimistic and hopeful? Or do they target the fears and insecurities that truly creep into most peoples’ minds? Are you secure in your financial future? How long could you live like you currently do if you lost your job? The presentation of any opportunity to mitigate those fears and insecurities is incredibly hard to ignore or turn down.  It seems that based on our completely unscientific chart below, this sales pitch actually preys on both ends of the spectrum: the hopelessly optimistic and the hopelessly pessimistic.


Our indefensibly unscientific way of charting the continuum of Hopeless Pessimism < hopeful homies > Hopeless Optimism

Like so many things in life, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. I actually scoff at this idiom pretty regularly. But in this case, I think it’s relevant. Somewhat related is the idea of scientific skepticism. Science is basically the incremental testing, retesting, questioning, reforming, and testing again of theories and hypotheses. This cycle requires a certain skepticism, but to keep yourself going, you’ve gotta have a little Hopeful Homie in you as well. 
On that note, I’ve got a seriously great opportunity at an up-and-coming blog. You’re not gonna want to miss out on this. Honestly, this could be big. You in? Let me know in the comments, and Stay Hopeful Homie.