There’s a lot of chatter out there on the interwebs about the difference between optimists and pessimists, and if pessimists have been unfairly maligned. Traditional thinking labels them as the gloomy Gus’ and Debbie downers of the world, the people that see the glass as half full, those who are just resolutely negative. The new approach identifies “positive pessimists” as pragmatic planners who hope for the best, but plan for the worst.
I think the real difference is being missed. It’s not a matter of being positive or negative, but rather how much a person thinks they can affect the external world around them. Let’s call this the difference between passivity and activism.
An activist who is diagnosed with a chronic disease doesn’t go home in defeat, but instead researches treatment options, enlists friends and family to help, and does everything possible to improve their situation. Activist pessimists and optimists can be hard to tell apart because they are often doing the same things; it’s the reasons that will differ. An activist optimist will exercise and eat right because they believe doing so will keep them healthy and provide a better life. An activist pessimist will follow the same exercise and diet regimen, but will explain that it’s to prevent health problems from affecting them. The difference is subtle; the optimist acts offensively, the pessimist defensively.
The same holds true for the passive optimist and pessimist. Neither of them will change their diet and exercise patterns: the optimist because of a belief that everything will turn out fine anyway, and the pessimist because of a belief that “when it’s your time, it’s your time.” There’s an old joke that perfectly defines the passive person. An area has had a massive flood, and a guy is climbing up on his roof just as his neighbor paddles over in a rowboat. “Climb in” says the neighbor. He waves him off saying “No thank you, I have faith that God will rescue me.” A few hours go by and water starts lapping at the base of his roof. A helicopter hovers overhead and drops a ladder; again, he refuses, stating that God will rescue him. Eventually, with the waters closing in, he loses his balance, slides off and drowns. The man awakens at the pearly gates of heaven, in front of St. Peter. “What happened,” he angrily demands, “Why didn’t God rescue me?” St. Peter looks at him and says, “Who do you think sent the boat and the helicopter?”
The passive optimist believes that things will turn out well, and therefore no special action is required. The passive pessimist believes that things will not turn out well, and therefore why bother trying. These two groups have far more in common with each other than they do with their more active compatriots. Passive people are less likely to be strategic, because being strategic means thinking through possible scenarios and having plans on how to react.
Why is this important? Speaking as a life-long pessimist, I’ve caught my share (and more) of grief for raising “what if” questions. I approach new things or ideas by first trying to disprove them, working my way around the edges looking for soft spots. It’s disconcerting to be perceived as that person always trying to ruin the party. Then there is the body of work suggesting that pessimists get sicker and die younger because of their negative views.
I never felt that the traditional description of a pessimist fit me. While I’m more than willing to entertain “the dark side” doing so has never deterred me from moving forward with a plan to lesson the impact of that worst-case scenario. There are a lot of people out there like me; we aren’t afraid to consider negative possibilities, and then we work like hell in the hope we can either stop them or mitigate their impact.
The revelation for me was realizing that the more important distinction was between those folks who put their hands up to do something versus the ones who sit and wait for someone else to do it. The underlying reasons why are less important.