Scott H Young

Using Pessimism


Is optimism better than pessimism? If you listen to most self-help writers they will give you a definite yes as an answer to this question. Our culture is steeped in positive psychology and optimism. We are told to “think positive” about the future and have “faith” that things will turn out well. Given this propensity towards optimism, I think pessimism has earned an unfair reputation.

I want to disband the myth that pessimism is all bad. When used appropriately, negative thinking can be an invaluable tool for growth and change. There are many situations that pessimism works far better than optimism. By not swallowing the grossly simplified advice of “be positive” and using pessimism constructively, you can rapidly improve the quality of your life.

Pessimism can be a double-edged sword. One of the reasons few self-help proponents advocate using it is that when it is used inappropriately or directed at the wrong aims, the results are disastrous. Unfortunately, the opposite approach of complete optimism diminishes the useful potential that thinking negative can uncover.

How Is Pessimism A Good Thing?

Bill wants to go on a diet to lose thirty pounds. Following common wisdom he decides to get himself optimistic about the situation. He doesn’t just think he’ll lose the weight, he knows he will. Furthermore, he knows that losing the weight will be easy. Bill goes on his diet and is surprised to find it is harder than he thought. A week has passed and he can’t see any changes. Bill get’s a bit frustrated and breaks his diet.

What went wrong? The problem in Bill’s case is that by thinking positive about how he would be able to easily handle his diet, the shock of reality caused him to fail. By getting his hopes up too early, he ignored that losing the thirty pounds might represent a much more significant and extended challenge.

Lucy also wants to go on a diet. Ignoring the pop-psychology dogma she decides to think pessimistically about the ease and short-term success of her diet. She expects it will require a lot of willpower to stick to and she may not see results for weeks. When Lucy does go on her diet she is surprised to find it is easier than she first thought. When she does start to lose weight, since she wasn’t expecting huge gains she is more motivated to succeed.

Why does pessimism work better in the short-run? Because short-term optimism can often create a huge, unexpected crash when reality drastically differs from optimistic projections. When Bill suddenly realized dieting was much harder and took much longer to see results, he gave up. Lucy, however, looked pessimistically at her short-term future and was able to push through to the end.

When many people decide to start a blog, they get very optimistic about their success. Heck, everyone is reaping the rewards of this web 2.0 stuff right? Unfortunately when they realize that building a successful blog takes months and months of extended work and even then no amount of success is guaranteed, these people give up.

In starting this website I utilized pessimism when looking at my short-term results. I didn’t expect to immediately attract a big audience and I expected that it would take months before I felt any support for writing articles. By taking on this approach, low-traffic levels didn’t phase my determination to continue blogging.

Where To Use Pessimism

The key to using pessimism is to use it in the short-term, never the long-term. Long term pessimism is when you believe your life will never get better, never grow, never improve. This belief is the truly disabling effect of pessimism.

In my life I have noticed two persistent truths. The first truth is that your short-term expectations are almost always overly-optimistic. The second is that your long-term expectations are almost always overly-pessimistic. In predicting where I would be today a month ago, I expected to be much further in many areas of my life. However, in predicting where I would today, two years ago, I am so far ahead it isn’t even close.

There have been many times I’ve gone into new areas with a lot of short-term optimism and I can tell you that it is a painful shock when you hit the real world. Constructive pessimism in these cases would have gotten me through the painful phases of little or no progress. I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way, so don’t fall into the same trap.

During my last years in highschool I spent little time focusing on interpersonal development and mostly my own independent development. Although I became proficient in communication skills, I never spent much time working on the depth of the many weak ties I had created.

When I came to University I felt it was time to switch pace and focus more of my growth outside of myself. One of my goals was to start entering the dating world with more than just a casual interest. Unfortunately due to an optimistic short-term position, I underestimated just how complex things were. Now a month and a half later I am getting a lot better at understanding all the social dynamics, but I was initially surprised at the difficulty. Now, by using pessimism has really helped me avoid the short-term pains of rejection and failure.

As painful as too much short-term optimism can be, too little long-term optimism can be devastating. My life really changed simply because I saw a brighter long-term future. Although this developed slowly over months and years, the more I saw my inevitable future as being whatever I decided in the present, the more I was able to bring it into reality.

Distinctions for Using Pessimism

I dislike the words pessimism and optimism because they both carry a lot of connotations in each persons mind. To avoid arguments over semantics, I want to clarify what ways you can use pessimism in the short-run that are constructive, not destructive. Here are some distinctions between constructive and destructive uses of pessimism in the short-term.

Assume a Higher Difficulty – Constructive pessimism usually involves assuming things are going to be much more difficult and involve much more failure than you currently perceive. So if you plan to start a business, believing that failure is highly probably and that you will need to work your butt off is probably a good idea to stay afloat.

Don’t Assume an Impossible Difficulty – Destructive pessimism involves assuming things will be too difficult for you to eventually succeed. So assuming that starting a business will be impossible for you even if you work hard is a waste. Pessimism should never be strong enough that it negates the possibility of long-term optimism.

Assume Results Won’t Be Forthcoming – To use negative thinking appropriately, assume that you won’t see results immediately. When I first started blogging it took a few months to even get more than a slight trickle of traffic here. By giving yourself a certain period where you will continue to work even if no results come, you can give time for them to surface naturally.

Pessimism and optimism are not mutually exclusive but can be used together for the superior approach. Short-term optimism can be dangerous when it leads to painful and demotivating failures that a pessimistic focus could have avoided. The most successful people use long-term optimism to draw themselves forward and short-term pessimism to protect themselves along the way.


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6 Responses to “Using Pessimism”

  1. Reese says:

    I love these contrarian posts of yours. For two reasons a) Your covering ground that pavlina hasn’t which is cool and your ideas seem to be grounded more in reality and work in real life. b) they are congruent with what I have experienced and they give me a model of reality that I can work with.

  2. Scott Young says:

    Thanks for the comments, Reese.

    I think that we must always strive to see reality how it actually is and not just how we think it should be. Too many self-help authors ignore aspects of reality, in my opinion, to simplify their message.

  3. Rosália Kogan says:

    Scott
    Thank you very much for this post. It is certainly one of the best articles I’ve read in my intire life. It makes lots of sense. It’s a shame most people can’t see it that way. By reading this I see how many times I get trapped by short-term optimism. But I just couldn’t understand what was happening to me. Your words were a great wake-up call for me. I always expect too much from myself, and whenever I can’t live up to my own expectations immediately, all that’s left is the sense that I’m powerless. From now own I’ll be able to be more patient more easily.
    Regards
    Rosália Kogan – São Paulo / Brazil

  4. Nina says:

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been wondering how to use my pessimism to my advantage. Yea, I did notice that if I think too positively (ex. anticipate that an internship will be all fun work and friends) and reality crashes, I find myself taking a long time to recover, not to mention I think too short-term. But if I think that an internship will be fun but will be filled with challenges (pessimistic thinking in a way), then I face reality better.

    Also, most self-help does not factor in people who seem predisposed to think ‘pessimistically’ (not the destructive kind that believes life is hopeless but the kind that is inclined to look for loopholes to be better prepared). I’ve tried writing gratitude journals, but for some reason I don’t really seem to read them again.

  5. Gorongo says:

    In the example of Lucy.. I wouldn’t call it pessimism as she is hopeful she’ll lose wait. Although she is aware of the difficulties/efforts involved. The optimism is mild in this case but is present.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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