If Your Glass Is Half Empty, Rejoice: How Pessimism Can Make You More Productive

Because optimists don’t wear seatbelts.

If Your Glass Is Half Empty, Rejoice: How Pessimism Can Make You More Productive
[Image: Flickr user Gunnar Grimnes]

When a thousand CEOs were surveyed about their half-full/half-empty outlooks, more than 80% of them were rated as “very optimistic.” Which could be a problem if you care about productivity and the performance of a company.


As Wharton psychologist Adam Grant argues at LinkedIn that optimism–otherwise thought to be as sweetly American as apple pie–can turn tart in any number of ways.

Optimism can become a bias

As Lindsay Abrams writes for the Atlantic, irresponsibility can wear the mask of optimism. Appropriately enough, it’s called optimism bias:

The flawed reasoning that one has lower-than-average odds of experiencing negative events. Not wearing a bike helmet increases the risk of injury or death in the event of an accident, but it’s human for helmet-eschewers to believe that their personal risk is less than that of other, helmet-less riders.

That idea of it being okay no to wear a helmet can wheel its way around the office. As Grant notes, people who never worry about their work have lower job performance than other people who do–and super optimistic CEOs tend to get deeper into debt and take more risks.

However, Grant says, optimists have their advantages: They tend to be more resilient. Why? Because pessimists tend to think negative events are a reflection of themselves: for example, if a presentation goes bad, they’ll imagine it’s because they’re a terrible public speaker and they’ll never get better. Optimists, on the other, have a growth mind-set: They think they can get better with practice rather than feeling fated to mediocrity.

The takeaway, then, is that rather than fully identifying with the half-full or half-empty ethos, we should take half of each. “Ultimately, both styles are deadly at their extremes,” Grant says. “Pessimism becomes fatalistic, and optimism becomes toxic. The key is to find the sweet spot, the more moderate ranges that combine the benefits of both approaches.”

Instead of rigidly holding them as personality types, it might be useful to think of optimism and pessimism as modes of thought, tools that fit certain tasks. For instance, if you want to appear super capable to a group that you’re joining, should put on your optimist hat–since people regard confident people as more competent. But if you’re riding your bicycle home from work, you should definitely wear a helmet.


Hat tip: LinkedIn

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.