The Virtue of Pessimism

This blog is an excerpt from my book, Lead The Future: Strategies and Systems for Emerging Leaders (the e-book is cheaper here).

Pessimists assume that things will get worse, or not go according to plan, but they care about the outcome. They have an important function to play in challenging an overly optimistic consensus.

As a society, we need people to raise the alarm and ensure we’re not lulled into a false sense of security. To solve complex problems, we need to hear different perspectives to best understand a given situation and how people feel about it. 

My friend Muhammad Miqdad is the global operations manager at a company called PakVitae. Their mission is to expand access to drinking water throughout the developing world by implementing low-cost systems through collaborations with community stakeholders and NGOs. While Muhammad is driven by PakVitae’s goal to provide access to more than 10 million people through their systems, he still identifies as a pessimist:

“When you grow up in a developing country, like Pakistan, or a country that has faced terrorism for a long time, you start to expect less and develop contingency plans in the back of your mind all the time.

For example, growing up it was common that the power would go out randomly. When I would play video games, I would save my progress again and again because I knew that I might lose power and all my progress at any time.

Pessimism is always hugging you, protecting you from unnecessary risks.”

He brought this mentality with him to his work with PakVitae. For the past year, he has been managing a series of projects to implement the company’s water-filtration systems throughout Africa. While his plan was to manage each of these projects directly by visiting each of the sites in-person, he feared that various issues would prevent him from following that plan.

“Right now, I had planned to be in Africa to help support our projects there,” Muhammad explained. “When I started planning these projects, I recruited interns from all throughout Africa to help implement them. I hoped that I would be able to support the implementations in person, but I knew unforeseen difficulties could prevent me from getting there—maybe the payment will not be able to go through because of issues in the banking system, maybe the rupee will become devalued because of economic uncertainty. So I decided to train my interns under the assumption that I would be unable to carry out the plan and that they would need to be competent enough to execute it without my presence. Right now we’re on Plan D, but everything is still moving forward successfully.”

Muhammad’s story demonstrates the merits of pessimism. The contingencies running through his head were critical to his mission. He found it stressful to overcome these obstacles, but his thorough planning and emphasis on training his interns prevented this challenge from turning into a catastrophe. Muhammad is a pessimist, but his perspective comes from his awareness that his actions will have a direct impact on the lives of others. While he cannot control the world, he can take responsibility for his actions.

Cynical nihilism is different from pessimism in this regard. It is a state of fatalism that finds its roots in despair. If you feel powerless to make an impact on the world, internalize that belief, and act (or don’t act) with that in mind, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the next section, I dig a bit deeper into the cynical nihilism that has been pervasive in our culture and help my readers to reframe their situation…

To say this has been a difficult year for many would be an understatement. There are reasons to be pessimistic about the future and it may be a helpful perspective to have. This advice from Muhammad helped me to take action when I first heard news reports about the Coronavirus back in late January. It drove me to go to the store and buy soap and a couple bags of rice back when I was the weirdo at work talking about some virus in China. Last time I went to Costco, I picked up some extra cans of beans and hand soap, just incase we experience a second wave similar to those in France right now. Worst case, I make a black bean salad and don’t need to buy any soap for a few more months!

I’m as optimistic as they come. My whole book is a call to my fellow Definite Optimists to reach out and connect with me (if you haven’t, please recommend it to your friend who you think would most enjoy a conversation with me)! But I will never forget Muhammad’s reframe on pessimism:

Pessimism is always hugging you, protecting you from unnecessary risks.

Muhammad Miqdad

Take risks that have the potential to give you a huge upside with an acceptable loss if it doesn’t work out. Don’t take any risks that could truly leave you unable to meet your basic needs. And if you ever find yourself in the latter situation, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Want to read more blogs like this? Sign-up for my free, weekly newsletter. It takes ~1 minute to read and will keep you learning something new and unexpected every week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *