July 3, 2011 8:12 pm
Cheers to those with a half-empty glass
By Lucy Kellaway
In business, optimism is good and pessimism bad. Optimists have a monopoly on success, on happiness and even on longevity. Pessimists, with their long faces and dark thoughts are pariahs, thought fit for nothing in the gung-ho corporate world except possibly careers in journalism (where bad news is good news). Otherwise, they have a choice between the couch, the closet or the comedy circuit.
But now pessimism may be coming back to the mainstream. The turn came last Monday, when management guru Tom Peters tweeted enthusiastically about a book that extols negative thinking. This is an extraordinary turnround for a man whose logo is a colourful exclamation mark and who for decades has been relentlessly, exhaustingly upbeat. The fact that the inventor of “Wow!” and “Brand Me” is now dabbling with negativity is the most exciting thing I’ve heard in a long time.
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Unlike Mr Peters, I was born pessimistic. I expect a sudden downpour to spoil every summer party; I am confident that every initiative will end in failure; at least half the dresses in my wardrobe are grey. Were it not for the fact that I never celebrate anything in advance just in case it doesn’t happen, I would be dancing a jig at the idea that people like me are going to be rehabilitated.
I’ve dashed to look up the book Mr Peters recommends, which turns out to be written by Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College. She spent 18 years doing careful research only to reach the sensible – if taboo – conclusion that it’s a good idea to think about all the things that might go wrong before embarking on something. Unfortunately she has limited her scope to people who are anxious, but it seems to me she has stumbled on a truth that applies universally.
Even more unfortunately, the publishers have sugarcoated the slightly subversive message with a brainlessly upbeat title: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking: Use Defensive Pessimism to Harness Anxiety & Perform at Your Peak. Still, Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day, and perhaps Prof Norem has now softened up the market for negativity sufficiently to prepare it for the book I’d like to write myself (if Mr Peters doesn’t get there first). I might call it: Pear-shaped: Why Things Always Go Wrong at Work, and How to Cope When They Do.
The trouble with optimists is that they don’t do well in a pear-shaped world. In prisoner of war camps in Vietnam, the people who died first were the positive thinkers: they fully expected to be back home by Christmas and fell to pieces when they weren’t. Admittedly, the world of business isn’t exactly like a prisoner of war camp, in that you can nip out for a latte and you can sleep in your own comfy bed at night. But it can be grim and relentless and one bad thing can happen after another and being always prepared for the worst seems to me the only wise course of action. Woody Allen put it best: “Confidence is what you have before you understand the problem.”
Even though a rehabilitation of pessimists is to be welcomed, there is little point pushing the point in self-help books. Optimists and pessimists were born that way; there is no change that can come from picking up a tip or two in a book, the only change comes through time – which tends to soften all extremes. I fancy I’m marginally less pessimistic than I was 30 years ago, having discovered that, once in a while, things can actually pass off rather well. Optimists eventually discover the reverse – and perhaps a drastic version of this is all that is happening with Tom Peters (who has also taken to tweeting cheesy quotes from Mother Teresa, which is never a good sign).
In any case, it is stupid to argue about which view of the world is best, when both views are clearly needed all of the time. Every organisation and every partnership should be carefully balanced to include both optimists and pessimists. A marriage also needs both – my own experience has taught me that it’s good to have an optimist to come up with endless wild schemes for picnics and outings and a pessimist to swash the maddest ones and temper the rest with paracetamol and umbrellas.
Businesses need both even more to have just the right mix of daring and caution. Diversity of optimists and pessimists is the most important sort there is and should be actively sought at board level and every level below. Corporate pessimists should be de-stigmatised and beckoned out of the closet. Above all, they should stop having to pretend to see the glass half full just to suit the fashion. They should be proud to declare that for them, it has been half empty all along.