Seek Optimism, but Thank the Pessimists

The pessimist is necessary but not ideal

“The one guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.”

-Jean-Paul Sartre

The pessimist lives a fairly safe and happy life. But not a fulfilling one.

The pessimist goes in with low expectations, and often comes out not so disappointed when things don’t go well.

The pessimist prefers not to take chances, risks, or opportunities because, well, “what’s the point?”

The pessimist doesn’t stick their neck out, doesn’t put skin in the game, and doesn’t put in the legwork because, well, “it’s going to fail anyway.

It’s easy to be a pessimist.

Nothing gained, nothing lost.

And you should thank that pessimist in your life or in your head for the role they play.

But if you want the world to be a better place, support optimists.

Or Be One.

The Eternal Tug-of-War

There is a constant tug of war going on in daily life.

No, not between right and left, Democrats and Republicans, airplanes and gravity, or that cheeseburger and a salad. No, the tug of war we all fight is between optimism and pessimism.

Life can be most pleasant when there is a nice balance between the two. The optimist pushes forward. The pessimist looks for danger. The optimist is the gas pedal. The pessimist is the brake pedal. But if you let either one take control and you’ll surely run into trouble.

The optimist will build a skyscraper all the way to outer space. The pessimist will never get started. But combine the two, and you get beautiful, iconic city skylines.

Pessimism has it easy. We default to pessimism. Pessimism is gravity to our airplane, cheeseburger to our salad, and…well, I’ll stop there (it’s election week).

That’s why they say “if it bleeds, it leads.” It’s why you only see shootings on the news from 6:00 to 6:29 (at least in Philadelphia). Then from 6:29 to 6:30, you see the feel-good story of a dog rescuing an old lady out of a tree.

Optimism has a built-in disadvantage. After all, it’s so much easier to sit on the couch and eat popcorn than it is to take risks that could fail, like building a business or writing in public.

Which is all the more reason why you must make every effort to stick your neck out and become an optimist. Because it’s hard.

The Yin Yang of Risk-Taking

Earlier this year, I decided to start writing in public. Doesn’t sound like much of a risk… if you’ve never done it.

But putting your most controversial beliefs out to the world, and publicly vowing to become unemployable, can carry a slight bit of risk.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken from writing publicly is that, in addition to what goes on in my own mind, there are no shortages of opinion out in the world towards people who are actually putting skin in the game.

There are trolls everywhere (mostly on Hacker News and Reddit), just sitting in their underwear in their parents’ basement, devoting their lives to attacking anyone who takes a stand on a subject.

When I first began writing online, I was shocked at the anger and bitterness people would bring to the comments section. It’s as if I had stolen their cat or eaten their lunch. It made me wonder if I even had the stomach to keep publishing my writing.

But after sticking with it and pushing through the negativity, I learned a comforting truth about those pessimists: they keep me honest. They keep me accountable.

So, while I urge you to become an optimist, I do urge you to acknowledge the necessity of having a pinch of pessimism in your life.

Pessimists Go with the Flow

The pessimist passively goes with the flow of the water because that’s the way it is, that’s the way it has always been, and any effort to pave a new path is futile and meaningless. Don’t blame them, however. Pessimism is an evolutionary advantage for us humans that has gotten us this far.

Our ancestors in caves were not admiring pretty flowers and skipping through golden fields. They were constantly on the lookout for danger. They spent millennia in survival mode, and it is why pessimism is baked into our brains. It is our default state. It is the gravity to our ambitions. It is necessary to keep us alive.

Pessimism is why we’ve made this far in human history.

Although the pessimist in you may not push things forward, it certainly keeps you safe.

And that’s enough for most people.

But not for people like me and you.

Optimists Swim Upstream

Sounds like a really pessimistic way to put it…

But optimism is hard to sell. And it’s even harder to buy.

Taking a stand for something and building towards a lofty vision can be daunting.

Putting skin in the game and taking risks can be dangerous.

Being an optimist in a world full of pessimists can be exhausting.

But knowing and accepting all that, there are a few ways to swim upstream with ease:

  • Understand that failure is not the end. It’s the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. When you don’t take chances, you won’t fail. When you’re on the outside looking in, it’s easy to think failure is to be avoided. But those on the battlefield, wherever it may be, will need to understand that a non-fatal failure is actually useful data for improvement.
  • Develop impatience with actions and patience with results. It’s another way of saying “enjoy the process.” When you prioritize action, you’ll fail more often, but if you understand the first point, you realize it is just part of the process. And so, you keep moving and keep doing the work, knowing that success is an inevitable side-effect of consistent action.
  • Think ahead. Everyone else is thinking about the past or fending off the battle that is right in front of them. Your ability to think ahead and articulate what is possible will allow you to grow a reliable base of support–and the strength you need to swim against the ever-increasing rush of the river.

Your Advantage Hidden in Plain Sight

If you’ve read your share of self-help books and listened to enough podcasts, it can be easy to conclude that there are enough people out there doing the heavy lifting. You might conclude that there are enough podcasts out there. You don’t need more, and there’s certainly no room for you to do one.

But if William Shakespeare never read Pyramus and Thisbe, would you even know his name?

It is the readiness to do it anyway that allows the optimist to make forward progress. It’s positivity of the optimist that allows him to add his voice to the conversation.

It’s the willingness to take risks. It’s the eagerness to head into the rush of the oncoming crowd. It’s the ingrained belief that there is no glass ceiling… that moves the world forward.

The optimist is the one learning, doing, building, creating.

And therein lies your competitive advantage. If everyone is a pessimist by default, if everyone is going with the flow of the rushing river, optimism is your competitive advantage hiding in plain sight.

So go out and be an optimist, but don’t forget to give credit to the naysayers and the pessimists.

A Heartfelt Thank You to the Pessimists

As you read this, take note of what you are thinking, how you are feeling, what gut reactions you’ve had to this post. It will tell you a lot about yourself and where you stand on in this tug of war.

There is certainly a need for the negativity of pessimists in our world. They call out bad ideas and keep optimists from taking silly risks. They may not always be very nice, but they are the bumpers that keep the bowling ball from going into the gutter.

It’s easy to be the bumpers.

It’s why there is only one Elon Musk, and millions of detractors.

And sometimes, the detractors have a good point.

Sometimes, the pessimists keep us optimists safe.

So, I just want to end this essay with a heartfelt thank you to the pessimist:

I need you in my life to keep me from going off the rails. But don’t think you will ever stop me from pushing the world forward to a better place.

And remember,

If you want the world to be a better place, support optimists.

Or be one.

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