A pessimist is never disappointed…

This used to be a mantra of mine when I was younger. It seemed so logical – expecting the worst would not only mean you were prepared for it, but would also lead to pleasant relief were a more positive outcome to occur instead.

Yet life experience and training as a psychologist has gradually eroded this viewpoint for me. Employing pure pessimism in the arena of employment itself can be at best unhealthy (e.g. feeling despondent and gloomy), and at worst lead to self-fulfilling prophecies (not applying for that job based on the prediction “well I won’t get it anyway…”).

As with most things, there is a balance to our approach and perspectives in such matters. So, when is optimism helpful and when can we benefit from some pessimistic realism (or is it realistic pessimism)?

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Believing we can change

A pessimist may argue that they can’t change; they were born a pessimist and have been that way all their life. It’s ingrained. A pessimist’s perspective on pessimism itself!

However, psychology research suggests there is scope for change: positive actions (acting ‘as if’ you were an optimist) can increase the likelihood of success and actually lay down new neural pathways – alternatives to those well-trodden pessimist pathways. Techniques that have been shown to help include mindfulness approaches (observing your thought processes and pessimistic biases), and cognitive bias modification (essentially ‘correcting’ negative biases towards a more balanced perspective). The key is practise!

Making your own luck

Psychologist and author Professor Richard Wiseman has conducted a lot of research into luck. One of the messages of his work is that ‘lucky’ people tend towards increasing their opportunities for success (or ‘luck’), rather than luck being some elusive entity that people find that they either ‘have’ or ‘don’t have’. Indeed believing one is not lucky may lead to confirming that viewpoint by never entering into situations that would prove otherwise (“there’s no point in entering that competition – I’m so unlucky I will never win!”)

So, put yourself out there. When it comes to scouting potential jobs or career moves speak to people, attend relevant events, apply for varied job and work experience opportunities. Don’t only go for what you consider to be ‘safe bets’; such ‘certainties’ cannot be guaranteed anyway and there’s wisdom in the old adage of learning from experience and ‘mistakes’…

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Optimistic bias

This refers to the tendency that we all have in believing that we are less likely to befall unpleasant events compared to the average (e.g. a smoker believing that lung cancer affects other people, justifying their decision to continue smoking). Pessimists may in some situations be more ‘realistic’, but they can also be less happy. Whilst health may not be the best avenue to display optimistic bias, in developing your career you are likely to go further from a little optimistic bias… At the very least, acting as if you are optimistic could well bring the same effects as truly believing the optimistic stance.

Managing expectations

Whilst you don’t want to expect too little from yourself that leads you to shy away from opportunity, you also don’t want to set your expectations so high that you set yourself up for failure and disappointment (“see, that optimistic thing just doesn’t work!”).

Put your eggs in different baskets rather than just the one. Have a plan A, but also a plan B and a plan C.

Being realistic doesn’t have to equate to being pessimistic. Yes, the job market it competitive. But does that mean you shouldn’t try to secure that job you really want?

Being action-oriented

You may be plagued with pessimistic thoughts, and doubts of success. That’s ok. What’s important is what you do; would you rather act in accordance with those thoughts or consider the steps to achieve your career goals and focus on that instead?

Not even Pollyanna can be optimistic all the time (they edited her pessimistic moments). Yet practising optimism to enhance success will improve your changes of that ‘lucky’ (career) break.

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About libbywatson

Dr Libby Watson is a Clinical Psychologist. She completed her Professional Doctorate at the University of East London (UEL), where she received the School of Psychology's research prize, and obtained her BSc in Psychology (with first-class honours) from the University of Sheffield. Libby is a Lecturer on the BACP accredited BSc Counselling programme at UEL. She also works as an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck. Whilst adopting an integrative approach to her work, she also specialises in: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) including 'third-wave' approaches; Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT); physical health (pain management, obesity and long-term health conditions); and qualitative research methods (specifically IPA). She also holds an honorary post in the psychotherapy department at St Thomas's Hospital.

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