Someone recently said to me, “Your columns and emails haven’t been very upbeat lately. You turning pessimistic on us?”
Me, pessimistic? Never!
The word “pessimism” comes from a Latin root meaning “worst.” Seeing things in the “worst” possible light doesn’t do anyone any good.
The mantra for pessimists is “Why even try? Nothing ever works out.” As a result, they avoid taking action out of fear. All too often, their pessimistic outlook becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
At the same time, I don’t want to be foolishly “optimistic.”
The ancient Greeks described such over-the-top self-confidence and arrogance as “hubris.” The dot.com guys of the 90s, the day traders of 2000, the real estate flippers of 2005 and the crypto traders of 2022 all possessed this kind of unchecked hubris.
The motto for the optimist is “Don’t worry. Be happy. What could possibly go wrong?” Optimists operate out of the foolish assumption that they’re immune from negative consequences.
We shake our heads and cluck our tongues at such foolishness. But it’s hard to avoid one of these extremes: fatal pessimism or foolish optimism.
There’s a better way. Here are four reasons to choose realism:
1. Realism faces the facts as they are, not as one might wish them to be.
A realist looks his $30,000 credit card debt right in the eye. No rationalizing. No denial. No wallowing in “what if?” or “why me?” Instead, he creates a plan for eliminating that debt by a definite date.
2. Realism emphasizes agency.
When a realist is in a job she hates, she explores other options (even if landing one of those positions would be challenging). Refusing to play the victim, she accepts the reality that she may need to keep her less-than-ideal job until she can get the training that will allow her to qualify for that better role. But always she remembers, “I have the power to choose and to act.”
3. Realism seeks advice, because it knows the value of wisdom.
If a father is the primary breadwinner for his family, he doesn’t impulsively buy a $100,000 term insurance policy off the Internet, pat himself on the back, and crow, “Look! I protected my family!” He seeks professional advice on what his true financial needs are. That way, if the unthinkable occurs, his family will be secure.
4. Realism tilts towards optimism, because that’s the lesson of history.
If you want, you can find plenty of reasons for pessimism. The world is fragile. There is a constant parade of new wars. Our national debt keeps growing even as our population ages and inflation lingers. So far, no wise political leadership has emerged to show us the way out.
On the bright side, we can’t forget the resourcefulness and creativity of the human spirit when faced with “unsolvable” problems.
Solutions tend to remain in the shadows until the last minute. Then, once the crisis is averted, the cycle begins again.
Any reading of history reveals plenty to regret. It is our human nature to stumble and fall—often in shocking ways. But we don’t have to descend into rank pessimism.
Looking back also gives us reasons to be thankful. Another recurring lesson of history is that when we face our troubles and humble ourselves…when we get up, and move in a wiser direction, we can make progress.
In short, it’s not a matter of being “pessimistic” or “optimistic.” Our mindset should be “realistic.”
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