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The Glass Is Half Observed: Optimists vs. Pessimists

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Welcome, once again, to our ongoing infographic series, “Between Minds: An Ongoing Taxonomy of Team Dynamics.” Our goal is to help you identify the often dichotomous personalities and work styles in your office. Our last entry, “Cat People vs. Dog People,” described key distinctions between canine and feline owners.

This week, we turn our attention to Optimists vs. Pessimists. Optimism and pessimism aren’t just perspectives—they are two different, but equally effective, strategies for coping with a complex and unpredictable world. The proverbial glass is rarely half empty or half full; its contents are a churning, swirling mess of party punch and sangria. Liquid sloshes from side to side in agitation, spilling out over the top, and leaking from a hole in the bottom. Optimists and pessimists develop different methods for managing this disequilibrium, maneuvering the concoction from A to B, and dodging stumbling party goers along the way.

Between Minds: Optimists vs. Pessimists

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Optimists are not simply idealistic Pollyannas staring at rainclouds and daydreaming of sunsets. In fact, a recent study in the journal Social Cognition suggests that they are promotion-focused climbers, always envisioning new ways to advance and grow. This attitude can foster inner fortitude and inspire confidence in coworkers. Optimists are motivated by new challenges and not immediately discouraged by setbacks. Although optimists can effectively process criticism as an opportunity for growth, they react best to encouragement and positive reinforcement.

History’s most famous optimist is German intellectual Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Leibniz, one of the great 17th century rationalists, applied his rigorous logical framework to the entire cosmos and concluded that our universe is, in a narrow sense, the best possible universe God could have created. The phrase “the best of all possible worlds” emerged from Leibniz’s lofty theory, which would later be mocked by Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers.

Pessimists, in turn, aren’t Debbie Downers constantly pondering their own failures and the inherent injustice of existence. But they are prevention-focused, and place an emphasis on security and safety. Pessimists are great troubleshooters as they often anticipate problems before they arise. They think through externalities, contingencies and fallback options before advancing forward, and encourage others to practice that same thorough preparation. Although pessimists are happy to know when they’ve done a job well, negative feedback is useful to them even after successful projects.

History’s most famous pessimist is 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer’s pessimism sprung from his elevation of will above reason as the driving force of human thought and behavior. He believed the hunger, shelter, security, and reproduction remain our prime motivations to persevere through life, not some illusory goal of enlightenment. So long as the desires of will triumph over reason, Schopenhauer argued, daily life is little more than suffering repeated over and over again—like Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down. But Schopenhauer also encouraged artistic and moral awareness to help mitigate the burden of the human condition.

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Which perspective do you think better serves project managers? When you look at red plastic cup containing an indeterminable amount of liquid, would you tend to say that is is half full or half empty? Or would you just look for some more punch?

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