Unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so. – Noam Chomsky
To Be or Not To Be?
Are you an optimist or pessimist? Possibly you might be a bit of both and maybe even call yourself a realist. No matter how you see yourself, there can be no denying that our attitude and how we perceive the events and circumstances of our lives significantly influence the outcomes we experience.
To explore this idea a little further, let’s say for instance that you misplaced a $100 winning lottery ticket…
The Pessimist’s Approach…
If you’re primarily a pessimist you probably won’t even bother looking for it because as far as you’re concerned it’s long gone and probably sitting down a deep dark drain. Or worse still, somebody else has picked it up and is now enjoying your winnings. And so you whine and complain about it and make yourself feel absolutely miserable for days to come. 🙁
The Optimist’s Approach…
If on the other hand, you’re primarily an optimist you effectively convince yourself that the lottery ticket has been misplaced and that it will be found. And so you keep searching for it day and night for an entire week. But unfortunately, you’re not able to locate it. That’s okay though, you’re an optimist after all, and as such you now believe that things were simply meant to be this way. Something positive will eventually come about from this experience. Yes, of course maybe you’re deluding yourself with these crazy thoughts, but at least you’re coming from a place of gratitude and appreciation, and that can be of tremendous value.
The Realist’s Approach…
If however, you’re a realist you quickly weigh up the odds of finding the lottery ticket against the time it might take you to find it. You quickly figure out that spending days on end trying to track down a $100 lottery ticket is probably not worth your time given how much you earn by the hour. You acknowledge that it’s probably not something that will be found, but that it’s also possible that one of these days you might come across it by accident. And so you continue living your life without worrying too much about the missing lottery ticket.
These are examples of three typical approaches that people might take in response to this dilemma. I’m of course very much generalizing here with how people might respond, but it certainly does provide for an interesting study into how the attitude we bring into each situation affects how we approach the situation.
As a pessimist, the missing lottery ticket makes us feel miserable about ourselves. As an optimist, it makes us feel somewhat blessed and grateful. And as a realist, after assessing the situation we come to realize that a missing lottery ticket is really not that big of a deal given the opportunity cost involved.
To be an Optimist or Pessimist…
It’s this attitude that will either help you find a solution to your problem, or it’s the one thing that can effectively hinder your progress. In fact, the attitude you bring into any situation can essentially become the problem that prevents you from moving forward.
Throughout the remainder of this article let’s explore the differences in attitude between an optimist and pessimist when dealing with a major setback. This setback you experience comes at you in several different ways… all at once. 🙂
Firstly you receive a substantial bill in the mail for a traffic infringement you weren’t aware of. The payment for this infringement is far more than you can handle financially at the moment. What’s more, a misunderstanding at work suddenly gets you fired and you are now jobless. And to make things worse, one of your best friends tells you that your partner has been cheating on you behind your back.
This day couldn’t get any worse, right? Well actually… while leaving work that day you slip and stumble down the stairs and break your leg. A trip to the hospital ensues and an unexpected medical bill awaits a jobless and potentially lonely soul. 🙁
These are all seemingly quite unfortunate occurrences that pull you away from your regular routine and push you out of your comfort zone. But it is often said that it’s not what happens to us that matters, but rather it all comes down to the attitude we bring into each situation. What’s more, nothing has any meaning but the meaning we assign to it. In other words, things aren’t bad until you make them out to be. As such, every situation you find yourself in is neutral to begin with. How you respond makes it out to be either a positive or negative experience.
Let’s now filter these events through two lenses. The first lens we’ll use will be the pessimist’s lens, and the second will be the optimist’s lens. Let’s see how viewing these events using each lens alters the outcome.
The World Through the Pessimist’s Lens
As a pessimist, you immediately think the worst of the situation. You just lost your job, you’re unable to pay your bills, your partner is cheating on you, and you’re sidelined with a broken leg. How much worse could this day potentially get?
All these unfortunate events weigh a heavy burden on your shoulders. You feel as though the entire world has just fallen on top of your head. In fact, you feel incredibly helpless like a victim of circumstance.
Why in the world did this happen?
Why did it happen to me?
Why am I the victim here?
Questioning yourself in this way makes you feel worse. In fact, you conclude that because you’re feeling bad about yourself that therefore everything must be bad. As such, you begin to project all these negative thoughts and feelings onto other people and it begins to infect — like a virus — all other aspects of your life.
Slowly but surely you start to get angry, frustrated and disgusted with yourself and with your life. All this just isn’t fair! As a result, you start complaining, blaming and making excuses about how things are and about how they ought to be. Everything and everyone is to blame for your predicament, except of course yourself. You are just a victim here, a victim of circumstance who is powerless to change a thing.
Your pessimistic nature doesn’t allow you to see things very clearly, and this is a direct result of the unhelpful thinking patterns you have adopted that work in tandem with your existing belief systems.
With that in mind, you lash out and blame one of your co-workers for the misunderstanding that cost you your job. Likewise, you blame your partner for cheating on you. How could they do this to you? How dare they do this after you have given so much of yourself to this relationship?
Along the same lines, you blame a stupid fly for bugging you while climbing down the stairs that led to your fall from grace. And about that traffic infringement… well, that’s not even your fault. It must have been a faulty traffic camera that caught you out.
Your pessimistic nature makes it difficult for you to contain and settle your thoughts. As such, your mind is constantly blowing things out of proportion without having the supportive evidence to justify the conclusions you are making. In fact, in this state, you are essentially exaggerating every experience and making things out to be far worse than they should be.
The biggest problem you have is the fact that you are failing to consider alternate perspectives and scenarios. Things might very well not be how you see them, however, you have completely closed yourself off from seeing other possibilities. All you see is your problems getting ever so larger before your eyes. In fact, your negative expectations are just spiraling your emotions down a deep dark bottomless abyss.
You don’t have a job, and because you have a broken leg you can’t yet pursue another job. You and your partner are obviously done for good. And without the support of your partner and without a secure job you won’t be able to pay your bills or rent. You will, therefore, get kicked out of the apartment and will end up living like a homeless person on the street begging for food.
Yes, all this sounds quite awful, but in ways, it kind of gives you comfort because if these events do come to fruition then at least you will be proven right, and if they don’t, then there will surely be other things that you can freely complain about. Either way you win. 🙂
As a pessimist, you, of course, wish for better days. You wish things were different and desperately want things to work out. However, because you always expect the worst you never actually make the effort to try and make things better.
You never try because for you failure is inevitable. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong, and so you prefer just to live day-by-day hoping that luck will favor you in some way. In other words, you believe that everything is completely out of your control. You either get lucky or you don’t, and you certainly don’t have a say in that outcome.
You go home that night and reflect on the most awful and miserable day of your life with regret. You regret the past, you complain about the present and you worry about an uncertain future. What’s more, you’re incredibly critical of yourself and extremely indecisive about what you should do next.
You certainly don’t like the way things have turned out and you most definitely want a way out of this situation, but no matter what ideas come to mind to help you work through your predicament, your brain always responds with…
This will never work because…
I can’t do this because…
Things are not going to get any better because…
As such, you’re reluctant to take risks. You won’t take risks to change things or to rectify the situation because by their very nature risks lead to uncertainty, and uncertainty for you means that bad things will happen and mistakes will be made. As a result, you believe that this will lead to further problems down the line.
Given all this, you kind of feel stuck and unable to move forward. Your pessimistic nature prevents you from making the most of your strengths and abilities. In fact, you completely underestimate your abilities. Instead, you succumb to your negative tendencies and accept how things are, and how you are. Moreover, you accept that things will only get worse from here on in, and as a result, you feel even more helpless and insecure about yourself.
Yes, seemingly unfortunate circumstances have befallen you in recent times, however, it’s your attitude and approach to these circumstances that are holding you back from making positive changes moving forward.
The World Through the Optimist’s Lens
Let’s now turn the page and take a look at how an optimist would typically go about handling these seemingly unfortunate circumstances.
To begin with, an optimist understands that things will never be perfect; that life will never be perfect. They are not deluded into seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. They instead understand that no matter what, everything isn’t always going to go to plan, and that unexpected events and circumstances can often lead to setbacks. As such, life is always going to be challenging and uncertain, and sacrifices will need to be made.
An optimist typically has a strong sense of confidence and self-belief. They are also enthusiastic, patient, calm and resilient when facing adversity. Moreover, they come from a place of gratitude rather than one of blame.
An optimist believes that difficulties are an inevitable part of life. However, they also believe that difficulties are temporary and can be overcome. As such, they always keep an open mind to the possibilities that might exist. To put it another way, they always hope for the best but prepare themselves for the worst.
When facing the tough predicament of having to pay an unexpected traffic infringement, of losing a job, of breaking a leg, and of facing a cheating partner, they choose to take things in their stride.
They don’t immediately jump to conclusions about how things are and about why they have happened. They instead assume that there is a rational explanation for everything and that they will figure it all out one step at a time.
The first step for them when dealing with these events is to accept full responsibility wherever possible. They understand that by accepting responsibility that they are putting themselves in the driver’s seat of their life. From this place, there is no complaining and/or blaming. There is instead a quiet acknowledgment that:
I’m in some way responsible for all this, and as a result I must be the one to figure all this out…
They then immediately turn their attention to the problem at hand, which of course comes in the form of:
- An unexpected traffic infringement.
- A misunderstanding that lost them their job.
- A rumor that their partner is cheating on them.
- A broken leg and a hospital bill.
Each of these events in an optimist’s mind are simply problems that need to be solved. Therefore, instead of complaining or blaming, they go to work trying to figure out why things happened without jumping to conclusions.
When it comes to the traffic infringement they accept that they might have been in the wrong. However, the problem is that they are unable to pay the infringement notice in full. As such, they call the traffic authorities and successfully get an extension to pay the fine over a six month period. Just because they’re an optimist, it doesn’t mean that the payment notice will just suddenly go away.
One of the key attributes of an optimist is that they don’t take themselves too seriously. As such, even when something seemingly unfortunate happens, they will often laugh it off and then immediately work on solving the problem at hand.
While solving these problems they will always visualize the possibilities in advance. In fact, within every difficulty, they will proactively search for possible opportunities. And this, of course, brings us to the fact that they just lost their job.
Getting fired is never easy, however, an optimist will typically try and work things out with their employer to rectify any misunderstandings that might have occurred. But if that doesn’t work, they won’t fall into the victim mentality trap, even if they feel as though they were unfairly treated. They will instead see this event as an opportunity of some sort.
Possibly getting fired from this job now opens the door to another career path that they never considered before. Or possibly they need to spend a little time in self-reflection to help them figure out their next steps moving forward. Or possibly getting fired is a blessing in disguise. Or possibly, all they need to do is talk to the right person who can help them get started down a new and more fulfilling career path.
Losing a job doesn’t mean the end of the word. It could very well signify a new beginning to try something else or to pursue a passion that you haven’t previously had time for. In fact, every adversity presents this kind of opportunity, however, we must be ready, open and willing to grasp these opportunities when they cross our paths.
Unlike a pessimist, an optimist is willing to try new things and take risks, but of course, if things don’t go as expected, they will learn from their mistakes and failures and make adjustments moving forward. In fact, everything for an optimist is a learning experience that helps them develop themselves in new ways. In such scenarios, they will often ask:
What if I just go for it?
What if I get lucky?
What’s the opportunity here?
What can I learn from this experience?
How else could I tackle this?
Why don’t I just give it another shot?
For an optimist possibilities always exist. In other words, there are no dead-ends. They always have options. But even when options don’t exist, they will always see the best in each situation in order to make the most from every experience.
This brings us to the news of the cheating partner. To an optimist, this news is only speculation. As such, they will continue to expect the very best unless there is concrete evidence that proves them otherwise. They will never really know what happened until they sit down and have an open and honest discussion with their partner. But even if it’s true that their partner cheated on them, they won’t just immediately think the worst of the relationship. They will instead discuss feelings within the relationship and figure out whether or not this is something that they can work through, together. Who knows? Possibly this one event could provide an opportunity to bring their relationship closer together.
And of course when it comes to the broken leg… well, there is a parable that helps put this into perspective. 🙂
There is a parable of a farmer who used a trusted horse to till his fields. One night during a heavy thunderstorm, the horse panicked and fled into the hills. The farmer’s neighbors, of course, sympathized with the old man over his rotten bad luck, but the farmer simply replied in return, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who really knows?”
A week later, the runaway horse returned with a herd of wild horses from the hills. With the extra horses on hand, the farmer was now able to till his fields much faster than ever before. And now, of course, this time the farmer’s neighbors congratulated the farmer on his extreme good luck. His reply was, “Good luck? Bad luck? Who really knows?”
One fateful day, the farmer’s son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, but he fell off and BROKE HIS LEG. Everyone thought this was very bad luck. Not the farmer though, whose only reaction was, “Bad luck? Good luck? Who really knows?”
Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied young man they found to help fight in the Civil War. Seeing the farmer’s son with his broken leg, they couldn’t conscript him and decided to let him off.
Was that good luck or bad luck? Who really knows?
There while lying in his hospital bed the farmer’s son met a beautiful nurse and immediately fell in love. They were soon married and had two beautiful children. Was this fate? Was it good luck? Or possibly, is it going to lead to bad luck? Maybe it’s too early to tell. Or just maybe it’s really what you make it out to be. 🙂
I guess the lesson here is that it’s not really about whether you think like an optimist or a pessimist. It’s rather what you make of the situation you find yourself in.
In other words, it’s all about seeing things in an optimal way that helps you create a better life for yourself.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
Did you gain value from this article? Is it important that you know and understand this topic? Would you like to optimize how you think about this topic? Would you like a method for applying these ideas to your life?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then I’m confident you will gain tremendous value from using the accompanying IQ Matrix for coaching or self-coaching purposes. This mind map provides you with a quick visual overview of the article you just read. The branches, interlinking ideas, and images model how the brain thinks and processes information. It’s kind of like implanting a thought into your brain – an upgrade of sorts that optimizes how you think about these concepts and ideas. 🙂
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Gain More Knowledge…
Here are some additional links and resources that will help you learn more about this topic:
- Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist? Your Health May Depend on it @ Psych Central
- Can Science Explain Why I’m a Pessimist @ BBC
- How to be an Optimist: 10 Habits That Will Help You Look on the Bright Side @ Huffington Post
- Optimist or a Pessimist? How Your Attitude Affects Your Love Life @ Elite Daily
- Optimism is Appealing, but Pessimism, Alarm and Anxiety Have their Uses @ The Guardian
- Pessimists Live Longer Lives According to a New Study @ Huffington Post
- Pessimism About the Future May Lead to a Longer and Healthier Life @ APA
- Pessimism vs. Optimism @ Psych Central
- The Pessimist and Optimist Gene Might Have a Huge Effect on How You See the World @ Bustle
- The Successful Optimist @ Entrepreneur
- The Trouble with Optimism @ Psychology Today
- What it Really Means to be an Optimist @ Inc.
- Why Optimists are Happier, Healthier and Wealthier @ Forbes