No One Wants to Follow a Pessimist

Every year for the past 10 years or so is obviously the worst year in the history of mankind…

…that is, of course, only to anyone who has failed to read a history book.

I get why it’s so easy to be pessimistic these days.

Our brains aren’t hard-wired to handle the sheer amount of information thrown at us through news alerts, emails, texts, tweets, and Facebook posts. There have always been terrible things happening in the world but never before has it been so easy to stay current on those terrible things.

So pessimism becomes the default outlook on the world for many.

The 24/7 news cycle beats us over the head with awful news day after day. Social media never sleeps on reminding us what we should be outraged by on an hourly basis. No one ever became woke by talking about positive things happening in the world.

Things are getting better, it’s just impossible for many people to believe this could possibly be true when they live headline to headline.

According to author Matt Ridley, the past decade just might be the best in history:

We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline.

Little of this made the news, because good news is no news.

For instance, experts in the 1970s forecast how much water the world would consume in the year 2000. In fact, the total usage that year was half as much as predicted. Not because there were fewer humans, but because human inventiveness allowed more efficient irrigation for agriculture, the biggest user of water.

In 2012, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and his colleagues argued that, thanks to modern technology, we use 65 per cent less land to produce a given quantity of food compared with 50 years ago. By 2050, it’s estimated that an area the size of India will have been released from the plough and the cow.

I suppose the 1990s may disagree with this statement but the sentiment is probably true. It’s just hard to wrap your head around this because good news takes place over decades while bad news can happen in an instant.

Plus, pessimism allows people to feel like they’re in on some secret that only intelligent, informed people who are truly paying attention can understand.

The world is far from perfect. Although we’ve seen unbelievable improvements in areas like extreme poverty, technological innovation and living standards over time, the world is still awash with problems. Many of these problems will likely never completely go away.

Our inherent problems aren’t a reason to fall prey to the siren song of pessimism though.

One of my favorite blog posts of all-time is called Optimism as a Default Setting by Josh Brown. Here’s the crux of Josh’s post:

Count the perma bears on the Forbes 400 list or the amount of pessimists who run companies in the Fortune 500. You will find none.

Winners and men and women of foresight and ambition do monumental things, pessimists watch them from the sidelines making a list of all the reasons things won’t work out.

The losers do get to win sometimes, too. But their victories tend to be Pyrrhic, as every calamity ultimately leads to opportunity when the dust clears.

Disney CEO Bob Iger, perhaps one of the most successful corporate leaders of the past two decades, seems to agree with this idea. Iger extols the benefits of having a positive outlook on life from a leadership perspective in his new book, Ride of a Lifetime:

One of the most important qualities of a good leader is optimism, a pragmatic enthusiasm for what can be achieved. Even in the face of difficult choices and less than ideal outcomes, an optimistic leader does not yield to pessimism. Simply put, people are not motivated or energized by pessimists.

Optimism sets a different machine in motion. Especially in difficult moments, the people you lead need to feel confident in your ability to focus on what matters, and not to operate from a place of defensiveness and self-preservation. This isn’t about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some innate faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing you and the people around you can steer toward the best outcome, and not communicating the feeling that all is lost if things don’t break your way. The tone you set as a leader has an enormous effect on the people around you. No one wants to follow a pessimist.

Pessimism can get you attention these days but it doesn’t lead to anything of substance.

Some people are glass-is-half-empty by disposition. We can’t all be optimists. I get that.

The late-Hans Rosling wrote in his excellent book Factfulness, “I am not an optimist. I am a very serious possibilist.”

If you can’t bear to set foot in the optimist’s camp at the very least consider becoming a possibilist. It’s a much better way to go through life than being a pessimist.

Pessimists are eventually abandoned but people will follow a possibilist.

Further Reading:
Mindless Resolutions
50 Ways the World Is Getting Better