Optimist or Pessimist?


“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”    Winston Churchill

Is your glass half empty or half full?  It may matter to your career success more than you think.   Scholars have linked optimism to career success in several studies.  They also link the quality attachment – your emotional security in the face of change or distress – as an indicator of your effectiveness at work – and perhaps at finding a job. 

We’re all familiar with optimism, which can come in two forms: innate and learned.  Some of us are just born optimistic; we believe that things usually turn out well.  Our innate optimism is either reinforced, or tempered by, our experience.  If things tend to turn out well, we continue to believe that they will, based on past experiences.  Experts believe that optimists stay focused on projects longer in the face of setbacks, because they believe that their efforts will make a difference in the positive outcome.  Pessimists, on the other hand, may give up more easily and approach challenges with hesitation and doubt because they generally don’t think that effort will make that much of a difference in the outcome.

Pessimists are more risk-averse than optimists; they fear – and expect – more failures.  Their negative expectations color their view of data, trends and performance, making them a challenge for optimists, who may see the data or event in an entirely different light.  Neither group may see their response as an emotional one; to each, the evidence is obvious and their view is simply based on the facts. 

Optimism tends to be devalued in business; pessimism is generally regarded as the more prudent approach to any problem.  The optimist’s success is often attributed to luck or chance, and people tend to remember bad outcomes more vividly than happy ones.  This chasm between optimists and pessimists can be career ending.  If your boss is an optimist and you are a pessimist, you’ll be perceived as a drag on good ideas, and may find yourself marginalized from any real contribution.  If your boss is a pessimist and you’re the optimist, you’ll be reminded often about the dangers of “irrational exuberance,” which essentially covers all exuberance in a pessimist’s mind.

Can you change your behavior if you tend to be overly optimistic or pessimistic?  There are changes you can make to help you balance your world view.  Experts define the difference between a pessimist’s and optimist’s world views as the following.  When faced with a negative event (say your boss didn’t like the report you submitted), if you’re an optimist, you perceive explain it as Temporary, Specific, and External (TSE).  “The boss is having a bad day; tomorrow he’ll have reconsidered.” (Temporary) “He’s liked everything else I did on this project so far – this is just a blip.” (Specific to this event) “The boss is overly concerned about budget projections because he was warned about going over budget on another project recently.” (External: it’s not me – it’s him)

Pessimists, on the other hand, explain negative events with a Permanent, Pervasive, and Personal (PPP) approach.  “The boss will never believe I can get this right.” (Permanent)  “I’ll never be considered for promotion after this.” (Pervasive: one bad event ruins everything) “I’m an idiot.” (Personal: absorbing the criticism and adding it to your self image)

Overly pessimistic people give up before they try, while an overly optimistic person may not always listen to helpful criticism or spend as much time planning or imagining consequences.  A balanced world view means that you can prepare for the worst while continuing to hope for the best.

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2 thoughts on “Optimist or Pessimist?

  1. Great post Candace!

    You are so right it is in achieving the balance that greatness happens.

    I honed in on the word prudent that you used early in the post. It implies a consideration of all elements. The word connotes a consideration for the future and keeps an eye on stability.

    I believe that leaders today are challenged in their skills to facilitate conversations be it within their teams or with partners. To be able to come to solutions that weigh the issues and leverage all the views, a leader must be able to respect all points of view and allow the team to create from the truth of the situation.

    I was recently involved in a meeting that a capital P, pessimist managed to drain the energy and enthusiasm of a whole group. It is fascinating to me as I look back and learn from what really happened.

    In truth the points the individual made that were viewed as pessimistic were in fact topics that needed attention. It was the delivery of the remarks that actually deflated the team.

    As the leader of the meeting, I found myself addressing the issues raised with a defensiveness, that I know in hindsight was not productive. The way in which the comments were delivered clouded the wisdom and knowledge of the individual and we all missed out on his experience.

    From a personal view, when I am confronted with such pessimism, which in today’s world of economic struggle is growing, I must hone my skills in dealing with it.

    Being able to gain the wisdom from the individual and be able to diffuse the delivery is where I shall be focusing. In these times of change the clash of pessimism and optimism will continue to either fuel growth or kill it. I personally will work to allow the energy to fuel my passion and hopefully ignite it on others…

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  2. I think that in addition to past experiences, a person’s parental figures have a lot to do with whether he or she is optimistic or pessimistic. If you have parents who show that they believe in your abilities and support you along the way, you are more likely to believe in yourself and what you can achieve – even into adulthood. I feel very fortunate to have a mother who was always my biggest cheerleader. When I reflect back, I can see that she was instrumental in helping me to build self-confidence and the optimistic attitude that I still possess today.

    I think optimism is a critical component for success and growth. Without it, we would all just give up after our first failure. Even worse, perhaps we would never try at all. We have to understand that there is always something positive in failure: lessons & experience. It can be painful or embarrassing at times, but I would much rather live with those feelings than the regret from not trying. Imagine what our world would be like if everyone was a pessimist. We would still be living in caves – assuming we didn’t completely die out! Great topic Candace!

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