Machine Design

I'm optimistic

Many engineers I know have little time for summer book reading.

Leland Teschler, Editor

But there is one title I've found that's worth perusing. Skunk Works is an autobiographical look at the Lockheed facility that produced the SR-71 Blackbird, U-2 spy plane, F-117 stealth fighter, and many other famous aircraft. The author, Ben Rich, was originally a thermodynamicist who ran the Skunk Works after its founder, Kelly Johnson, retired. Rich passed away in 1995, before the book was published.

Rich's observations form an interesting look at what went on during the development of military aircraft that are now household names. But the book also explores how Rich approached problems that, at the time, looked like genuine show stoppers. One thing that comes through from all these travails is Rich's optimistic and enthusiastic attitude. And in fact, Googling on his name brings up several references to him that also mention his energy and dynamism.

One thing for sure: Rich had an optimistic attitude long before he took over the Skunk Works. It is fair to wonder if his attitude had something to do with his success there. There is plenty of evidence that people who are upbeat do better in life. Studies of college freshmen, for example, have shown not only that optimists get more results, but that they experience less stress and are healthier to boot. Cancer patients who are optimists tend to respond better to treatment and live longer.

Optimists also tend to work longer hours, expect to retire at an older age, and think they'll live longer, according to recent studies. When they get divorced, they are more likely than pessimists to remarry. And effective inventors, besides being resourceful, also tend to be unflagging optimists.

All in all, there are a lot of reasons, both professional and personal, to adopt an optimistic attitude. But that brings us to summer reading of a different sort. It is a report by economists at the University of Chicago who have studied firms run by entrepreneurs, including some who were optimistic. Their conclusion is that entrepreneurship is one area where optimism doesn't pay off. Companies started by entrepreneurs who are optimists tend to grow less, die sooner, and be less profitable than the norm.

The problem, say the economists, is that optimists often discount bad news and engage in wishful thinking when their business plans don't go smoothly. Interestingly enough, optimistic entrepreneurs who take on a reasonable amount of short-term debt do better. The prospect of making payments forces them into periodic reality checks. That makes them pull the plug more quickly on ideas that just aren't panning out.

The report is not exactly light reading. It contains heavy-duty analysis to prove its point, including an involved discussion of exactly how researchers classified entrepreneurs as optimistic or not.

But the conclusion sounds right to me. I think Andy Grove, a cofounder of Intel Corp., summed up the distinctly nonoptimistic attitude most likely to turn entrepreneurs into winners: "Only the paranoid survive."

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