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The Dark Side Of The Optimism

How I learned the value of pessimism to overcome my unrealistic degree of optimism.

Photo by Aryo Yarahmadi on Unsplash

We all know the classic fable about the grasshopper and the ants.

It’s summer. The optimistic grasshopper keeps playing his instrument, living for the moment, without any worries about the future. At the same time, the pessimist ants are working hard to stock a big amount of food, preparing for the winter.

The ants warn the grasshopper of the trouble he’ll be in the coming winter. But he insists there is plenty of time for that.

Winter comes, and the grasshopper, who was not prepared and is now starving, has to beg for help from the ants.

They say being optimistic, positive, and confident is a good thing. But when you overdo this, it becomes a problem.

Some years ago I participated in a nice entrepreneurship program. Like any good business training, there were these practice activities. One of the games was the “ring toss”. The one you get some rings that you need to throw at a pin from a certain distance.

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In my case, there were a single pin and 10 different distances. It started at distance 1, which was right next to the pin, up to 10, about 3 meters away. The instruction was very clear: “choose any distance you want and try to score as many rings in the pin as possible”.

Well, that was too easy. So I positioned myself at the closest distance and started to throw the rings. It was so boring and easy, that somehow I managed to miss the last one. I couldn’t believe it. I asked if I could throw that one again, because of course I’d never miss such an easy task, but I couldn’t. There was no second chance.

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That day the instructors called me an “overconfident” person. They used me as an example for the whole class of what not to do: underestimate your mission and overestimate your ability to complete the mission.

That stuck in my mind forever. Later I learned that my personality type is naturally optimistic. I tend to think everything will be fine, or that the best possible outcome will be the one happening in the end.

Most of the time the final outcome is not the best one that I was expecting. It’s usually not the worst one either. It’s something in the middle, but still below my expectations.

Then I realized that it happened in many situations in my life. The reality was usually below my expectations.

In school and university, I thought I didn’t need to study for the exams. I was wrong. Even in some jobs interviews or other important meetings, I thought I didn’t need to prepare that much. Naïve mistake. In many tasks and projects, I thought I would nail it without much effort. I would take tasks for granted, thinking it was too easy for me. Only to find myself struggling to complete it. Or having to count on good luck or goodwill from others. Like that grasshopper from the beginning. I was that grasshopper.

It’s frustrating when the reality is never at the level of your expectations. Actually, frustration is a constant part of the life of over-optimistic people. And also of people with high expectations. It’s like expecting to have a glass full, but getting it half-empty in the end.

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By the way, I always found it hard to associate this thing of seeing the glass half-full/half-empty as being an optimistic or a pessimist. For me, it is more about gratitude and ambition.

If I see the glass as my life, then the half-full part is everything I have and the half-empty part is what I don’t have, but desire to have. Not only material things but experiences as well.

I must see my glass as half-full to be grateful for everything I’ve achieved, which is a blessing. But I also must see my glass as half-empty to continue growing and pursuing a fulfilled life. (Or fulfilled glass?)

If I focus too much on seeing the glass half-full, I will stagnate and stop growing. If I focus too much on the half-empty part, I will not realize how much I have achieved so far. I will always expect more and more, focusing on what I lack only. I will start complaining about little things and will become a grumpy person.

I prefer to see the whole glass and be conscious about both, the half-full and the half-empty parts of my glass. That’s seeing the big picture.

After failing in many easy tasks due to my overconfidence and lack of cautiousness, I had to learn to be better prepared for everything I do. I learned the importance of being a little bit more pessimistic, a little bit more skeptical. To prepare for the bad outcomes that could happen.

Is good to be an optimist, but there is a dark side of it: you can become negligent. It’s better to be optimistic AND prepared. Expect for the best but prepare for the worse.

If I had an opportunity to throw that ring again, I’d concentrate more and make sure I would never miss such an easy task.

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels



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