In Praise of Pessimism

I’m at it again: writing a tricky headline to catch extra interest in hopes of spreading this idea a little wider than it might otherwise go.

The truth is I’m not praising pessimism as better than optimism, or suggesting that pessimists have a clearer, more accurate view of the world and where it’s going. In fact, I’m convinced of the opposite.

Sadly, too many people with unalloyed negative outlooks comfort themselves by thinking they have a monopoly on recognizing and understanding reality. I personally believe steadfast pessimists are wrong more often than they’re right.

All I’m praising here about pessimism is this: staying alert for actual dangers and pitfalls can be beneficial, because it helps you prevent accidents and sidestep unwanted outcomes. The result is to greatly lessen the need to pick up the pieces and put things back together after problems occur.

I have long stayed alert for approaching dangers and hidden pitfalls in my own daily adventures, and I’m satisfied that watching for and proactively minimizing whatever could go wrong has helped me avoid much more heartache and difficulties than I’ve actually encountered and endured.

For example, I ride a motorcycle much more often than I drive a car. Yes, I know: that’s asking for trouble. But while I’ve certainly had a few two-wheel scrapes with peril, I’ve clocked many more than 100,000 miles in relative safety. Why? Because as I ride, I’m constantly watching out for hazards anywhere around me and taking steps to avoid them as early as I can, usually well before they can actually affect me.

Inattentive drivers, bad weather, faulty equipment, ominous obstacles in the road – I’m alert to these and other negative possibilities and I’m always ready with plans to compensate so as to maintain my usual (large) margin of safety.

Slippery pavement, unsafe situations, rapidly narrowing passageways in and through traffic, surprisingly sharp curves in the road – I’m always busy anticipating what might suddenly appear in front of me and calculating the best ways to stay clear of them.

My “pessimistic” attitude extends beyond motorcycling to both my work and my life, as well.

In all my professional relations with clients, for example, I habitually considered what could conceivably happen next to upset the applecart – everything from inadvertent misunderstandings and the advent of formidable competition to active undermining and unexpected reversals in client goals, perceptions, or values. At every moment, I either had a remedial plan lined up or stood ready to prioritize a compensating strategy.

More broadly, in all my efforts to accomplish particular tasks, projects, and goals, I tempered my confidence in my assessment of the situation and my approach to producing the outcome I wanted with a healthy respect for the disruptive power of sudden, unforeseen changes. I also backstopped my rosy expectations of what might happen or what key people might do or say next with mental flexibility: an open-minded readiness to roll with unexpected punches and change course quickly to minimize or avoid unfavorable developments.

Most important, in my personal relationships, I long ago learned to listen carefully and continually work to understand what each person important to me is thinking and feeling. I work even harder to communicate my own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions as clearly and fully as I can. In doing this, I hope to minimize the possibility of any miscommunication that could momentarily disrupt or permanently sour the relationship.

All of this wariness is the style of pessimism I praise.

I’m careful not to expect all of these problems to occur. I’m careful not to borrow trouble before it happens. Most times, I’m hoping and planning for the best. But I’m persuaded that allocating time and energy to consider possible pitfalls is one of the best ways I know to avoid falling into them.

And to craft a word to the wise that paraphrases the great Sherlock Holmes: “When you have minimized the possibility of unwanted events, whatever remains, however commonplace, is likely to support your contentment.”

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