Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

“The reason a British person has to do that is that we’re raised in a rigid class system where we have all hope beaten out of us. And your [American] optimism is overwhelmingly positive, except when it leads you to act against your own best interests.”

You are, at least in part, a product of your upbringing. If you grew up in Scandinavia, then the Law of Jante may have been thrust upon you from a very young age, reminding you to be humble. If you grew up in the UK, then you may have been bombarded with the almost comical sense of pessimism expressed by comic John Oliver. And if you grew up in the United States, you may have been taught that you are only limited by your imagination and that anything is possible.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that one perspective is necessarily better or worse than the other, but these cultural differences do have a direct impact on how you go about living your life. If you’re told that you’re unlikely to ever amount to anything all that special, then you’re more likely to set the bar low and be incredibly grateful for any tiny success you may achieve. That was the case with John Oliver. He was arguably my favorite Daily Show personality and now he’s graduated to having a show of his own on HBO.

On the flip side, if you’re told that the sky is the limit, you’re more likely to dream big. You’ll have these big, bold ambitions. The problem is that, in a very real sense, the chances of achieving this sky-high goals is going to be quite slim. Of all those hopefuls who appear on American Idol, only one will win… and he or she may quickly fall away into obscurity anyhow. Anything short of monumental and breathtakingly amazing success will almost feel like a failure. You’ll be disappointed, even if you objectively performed better than the happy Brit with lower expectations.

I fully realize that John Oliver largely makes these comments in jest, but the insight is undeniably profound. Of course, not unlike mentor Jon Stewart, John Oliver is also quick to self-deprecating humor too. The difference is he often plays up how he’s British.

“I get nostalgic for British negativity. There is an inherent hope and positive drive to New Yorkers. When you go back to Britain, everybody is just running everything down. It’s like whatever the opposite of a hug is.”

The quote at the top of this post comes from a recent segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in which he comments on income inequality, the wealth gap, the “death tax” and “class warfare. The part about American optimism starts at around 6:11, though I’d encourage you to watch the full 14 minutes. The “Americaball” finale is particularly fun.