6th March 2015 · By Lee Jacobson

In Defence of the Pessimist

A few days ago I was listening to The Art of Being Brilliant by Andy Cope and Andy Whittaker on Audible. As selfhelp books often do, The Art of Being Brilliant focuses considerably on positivity, and why being positive is so essential to success. Again, like a lot of selfhelp books, it was keen to provide the reader with numerous facts to support their case such as: positive people are more influential, they're promoted faster and they're 40% more confident than their pessimistic peers. So you might think it's settled then? Facts are facts, positive people are the best.

Maybe. But, I wonder if there could be more to it than that.

Interestingly, up until lately people believed similar things about extroverts. It was thought that because team work and effective communication is so essential to modern business, having an extroverted personally type would be a natural advantage. Over the last few years however, that belief seems to be shifting. Now a number of people are speaking out about the overlooked strengths of introverts, explaining that introverts are "thinkers", making them well suited for roles requiring a lot of individual thought. The current popular opinion, and possibly scientific opinion, is that neither extroverts or introverts are better, instead suggesting the lesser known "ambivert" personality type is the most successful of them all.

So what is an ambivert?

If you haven't already guessed it, ambiverts are people who have characteristics seen in both extroverts and introverts. Unlike introverts and extroverts, ambiverts are able to choose between introversion and extroversion depending on the situation they're in. Put simply, they can be social and influential when they need to be, but they're also comfortable with working independently. It's this plasticity that allows ambiverts to have the best of both worlds, and as a result, are likely to be more successful on average.

So what does any of this have to do with pessimists?

Maybe nothing, but I wonder if we're making the same mistake labeling optimists as more successful as we did previous with extroverts. Could there be a happy medium between an optimist and a pessimist? Personally, I think so.

But first off, lets look at some reasons why optimists are thought to be more successful than pessimists.

Optimists tend to be happier, and happy people are often more productive. They're also more influential, often making better salesman, this is probably because people prefer interactions with individuals who are happy and upbeat. Optimists also take more risks. This can be attributed to their instinctual belief in positive outcomes. Most people who are considered successful have probably taken a risk to get where they are. Whether it's remortgaging their house to start a business, or following a risky career path such as becoming a professional sportsman, these risks come easier to optimists.

So what's the catch?

Although some degree of optimism is clearly advantageous, too much optimism can become problematic. The consequence of too much optimism is an unrealistic view of the world, resulting in poor decision making. This over optimistic thinking might cause someone to believe that they don't need to attend college to get the job they want, or that they don't need to try because everything will just fall in place. Clearly, this type of optimism isn't rational and is very likely to be a disadvantage.

Interestingly, this "easy-going" attitude which occurs in extreme optimists is the exact opposite as what's seen in people with some level pessimism. Instead of ignoring them, pessimists naturally obsess over potential challenges, and their negative view on the possible outcome of these challenges may make them more likely to create an action plan.

Take the example of two people studying for an exam. The optimist might study for a few hours the day before and feel completely confident they'll pass. Yet the pessimist could study for days, and still truly believe the exam will go badly. Despite what these two may believe, in reality the pessimist is much more likely to pass the exam.

There is a limit however. Extreme pessimism, just like extreme optimism, isn't ideal. Being too pessimistic can result in a defeatist worldview, making it easy to reason that trying is pointless when success seems like an impossible outcome.

And now we're back to the same place we were with introverts and extroverts. Too little of either is bad, yet too much of either is also just as problematic. Perhaps the real advantage isn't simply being "this" or "that" type of person, but being able to balance and recognize the advantages of both. In some situations it may be best to be optimistic. For example, when making a sale, optimism that the customer will want what you're offering can help, but in other situations it could be helpful to have a more pessimistic, critical, attitude.

Being someone who would describe themselves as naturally more on the pessimistic side, I've never felt like it was a disadvantage to me. I've always believed my pessimism made me more critical of my choices, and that doubt gives me an opportunity to prepare for what I fear may go wrong.

As someone who believes that pessimists have a lot to offer the world, I think it's really unfortunate how negatively the word pessimist seems to be used. Maybe more unfortunate however, is how this view seems to be largely perpetuated by what feels like an optimistic majority who simply doesn't understand how pessimists think - often confusing pessimism with defeatism.

Perhaps, instead of focusing on being a certain type of person, it's more beneficial to simply play up to our own unique strengths. If there's something history has shown us, it's that it's the people who are able to see the world in a different light that are often the ones who make greatest discoveries.



Lee JacobsonHello, I'm Lee.
I'm a developer from the UK who loves technology and business. Here you'll find articles and tutorials about things that interest me. If you want to hire me or know more about me head over to my about me page

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