A New Look at the Pessimist

This is how to harness your pessimism as a force for good

Maybe you don’t need to look on the bright side. Pessimism can actually be quite powerful. You just aren’t using it the right way.

This is how to harness your pessimism as a force for good

A lot of people that I know think of themselves as natural pessimists. Suggest going to see a play, and they will tell you about how crowded it will be. Suggest a new idea at work, and they will tell you that everyone will oppose it and why it won’t work. Tell them a dream of yours, and they will let you know the myriad ways it will fail to materialize.

If you’re one of those pessimists, you might think that you are broken in some way. Your first reaction might be to find out how you can look on the bright side of things rather than always seeing the potential flaws.

But, actually, your pessimism is quite powerful. You just aren’t using it right.

Research on goal achievement suggests that specific plans are crucial for succeeding at anything you try. Those specific plans should include lots of particular steps that you need to take in order to succeed. But, they also need to incorporate an understanding of all of the barriers that will prevent you from reaching your goals.

That is where your inner pessimist comes in. Next time you are contemplating an important goal (of your own or someone else’s), release that pessimist and let it run wild. Find all of the things that will go wrong. After all, if you really do try to achieve this goal, the obstacles really are likely to be out there.

The trick, though, is not to use them as a reason not to pursue the goal. Instead, after you have given your pessimistic side its chance, bottle it up and start problem-solving. Treat those obstacles as things you can plan for.

Triage the potential obstacles

Start with some triage. Which of the obstacles that you identified are really unlikely to happen? Which of them are not really that important? Put an X next to those items on the list. You have noted potential problems, but they aren’t things that should occupy much of your time right now.

Next, think about the ones that could have the biggest negative impact on your goals—particularly if there is a substantial chance that they are out there. Those are the ones to address first.

Before you launch headlong in pursuit of your goal, think about what you can do to minimize the impact of these impediments. There might be people you need to bring onboard the project, resources you need to gather, or permissions that need to be lined up. If you need help or advice to deal with these issues, then find a mentor who can guide you.

Don’t use the problems as an excuse

If there are some obstacles that you cannot find a way around, figure out how much you can get done before those problems are likely to rear their heads. After a lot of reflection, you might choose to give up on a project for now because there are too many problems that can’t be solved. But, you might also decide to push forward and assume you will deal with some of the seemingly insurmountable issues as they come up. At least you are now aware of them in advance, so they aren’t a surprise.

That said, don’t give up too quickly. Often people respond positively to requests for help only after you have gotten started. When they see how much you have accomplished already, they are more willing to aid you in your quest than they would be if you pushed them for a commitment before you have begun. They want to know that you have some “skin in the game” before they will work with you.

In the end, your pessimistic tendencies are a feature—not a bug. Just use them wisely.

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