In defense of pessimism

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Pardon me while I wax philosophical for a moment.

There are a lot of catchy clichés describing how optimism is the light of the world, and how pessimism is evil creeping into your thinking. Seeing a glass as half empty, though, is not a negative outlook. It’s a realistic assessment of a limited resource.

I’m an incorrigible optimist. It’s served me well, for the most part. I’m always willing to take a gamble, and I’m usually satisfied with the outcome. When deciding to go indie, I did my best to tally up my potential sources of income, marking both the highest and lowest possibilities to weigh the options. Thus far I’ve hit a fair medium. I have projects in the work that I forecast will make things even better, and I’ve staked a lot of my time into bringing them to fruition. A lot of my time at the expense of more immediately fruitful pursuits.

My wife is what I think most of the clichés would deem a pessimist. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without her. For every wild idea I plan out, she reminds me of the realistic outcomes, backed with historical data. If it weren’t for the tempering quality of having “pessimists” around, I’d be living in a tiny apartment, buried in debt, and likely friendless. I prefer to think of them as realists.

If a glass is half full, you’re celebrating the abundance of what the glass still contains, which leads to a more carefree approach to savoring the remaining contents. If you see it as half empty, you might savor it even more, being conscious of the fact that no matter how much is left, it’s less than you started with. I sometimes envy that realistic view.

I like being an optimist, but I take a guarded stance on the matter. When untreated, my bi-polar disorder gives me the occasional — albeit skewed — idea of how crippling pessimism can be, and the damage that optimism can cause. These extremes aren’t indicative of much in the real world, but they do give me the impression that optimism is more fun. But my life has proven again and again that the balance between the two is the sweet spot.

Maybe the world would work better if we were all both, but I think that being able to focus on wild ideas – unencumbered by reality and previous failures – is something that can only be achieved by an individual who just isn’t affected by those facts and that data. And being the force that prevents suicidal leaps is better left to those who can own the responsibility. If we all had both personalities, would we cancel ourselves out before we had a chance to evolve ideas?

I’m absolutely not implying that a realistic approach never leads to innovation. I have noticed, however, that major leaps forward in human progress are usually the result of people that could be considered insane. Insanely optimistic about the potential outcome of an experiment, and willing to risk life and limb just to find out.

My point is, optimism is not the shining light of the enlightened human being. I’m tired of reading “inspirational” quotes on Facebook about how optimism is a goal we should all strive toward. Optimism and pessimism are not light and dark sides, they’re complementing halves of the same token. We need each other, you and I.