Why thinking negatively about your career and life can pay off

Can thinking negatively actually end up making you more successful? An inside look at the power of pessimistic thinking and the outcomes.

It takes practice to come out of Schopenhauer’s famous mediation on pessimism with a sober mind, but real, practical-wisdom awaits those that keep at it. The German philosopher correctly identifies the fallacy of happiness; a feeling that survives on human desire, which is impossible to satisfy. To recognize this is also to willingly allow the wind to leave our sails in favor of a blander, more level headed existence.

Despite living in a world that clearly has zero stakes in our well being, “pessimism” is somehow observed to be a pejorative. I for one think it’s more than reasonable for anyone born after 1914 to privilege a defeatist attitude over a cherubic one, saying nothing of the many horrors that endorse melancholy every single day all over the world.


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The fruits of negativity

Laura Xiao is the CEO and cofounder of Henné Organics. Erin Magner of Well & Good recently detailed Xiao’s downbeat prod to massive success, celebrating the cynicism that lit her way. A refreshingly welcomed take.

When these kinds of ventures get written up, they’re always decorated with the same tired-cherry-verbiage. Xiao wasn’t strident, nor was she quixotic, she was simply sharply aware of all the adversity that stood between her and her goals. Visualizing all the ways she could fail illuminated potential solutions that much more profoundly. More glumly, the acceptance of inevitable catastrophe enabled her to maneuver better in its wake.

Xiao doesn’t focus on the negatives but she makes her self very familiar with them. “This combination led to me taking more calculated risks and also helped me cope better when some of these issues arose,” she says. Operating with defeat in mind forces us to be prudent and science agrees.

Being negative should apply to other areas of life

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study back in 2013 that found newlyweds that were optimistic about their courtship were more likely to split up than couples that embraced the contrary view.

A study conducted back in 2016 motioned that young entrepreneurs with above average optimism were 30% less profitable than those with below average optimism. The National Cancer Institute found that individuals that underestimated their risks for heart disease were more likely to exhibit early signs of it.

In almost every occasion, a glass half empty seems to lead to a fuller stomach, but of course, execution matters.

A clear distinction should be made regarding the sub-sects of cynicism. No reasoned practitioner would recommend a fatalistic attitude full stop. The school of pessimism, as it relates to analytical and creative assignments, refers primarily to defensive pessimism.

Defensive pessimism is a tactical method of reinterpreting inherent anxieties as plans of attack. Votaries readjust their expectations to properly prepare for events of failure. Psychologists Julie Norm and Nancy Cantor explored the merits of this philosophy at length, more specifically with a juxtaposition of strategic optimism.

Their findings suggest that the hesitation to take previous success as a final word for futures success inspires bulletproof blueprints. These individuals, weaponize anxiety, their worries nudge them into action. The researchers state, “Subjects whose strategic construction of the situation was not interfered with do not show impaired performance. These data are interpreted as evidence that the effects of low expectations and high anxiety on performance may be mediated by the strategies individuals use when approaching risky situations.”

All of the research and anecdotes mentioned above should not be taken as critiques of optimism. Literature can match every benefit of dour-caution with data hailing intuition and unbridled confidence.  However, for those of us plagued by panic, it’s nice, to know there are methods of making it work for us.

To expect a negative outcome is not synonymous with being resigned to one. Most people fail. Most endeavors fail; give it your best shot, hope for the best and anticipate the worst. Awareness is the father of strategy.


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.