I’ve spent my life studying peak performance and the mindset of high achievers.
There’s a difference between how everyone thinks they think and how they actually think.
Popular psychology is all about positivity. Glass half full, look at the bright side, etc.
I read this article in The Atlantic recently on “Defensive Pessimism.” It’s a concept I remember first hearing about in graduate school and is a strategy used by many to combat anxiety.
Basically, you always envision worst-case scenarios playing out. If it can go wrong, it will.
Sounds counter-intuitive, right? Why would you ever want to think that way?
The difference is in what defensive pessimists do next.
Instead of doing nothing (which is what most standard “pessimists” would do), they take a controllable action step towards making sure this worst-case scenario doesn’t play out.
For example, I’ve been doing a lot of virtual trainings lately and I’m always paranoid that technology will fail and my PPT slides aren’t going to display correctly in Zoom.
Worst-case scenario, right? But this leads me to test the technology and slides multiple times beforehand to make sure everything works.
Just consider how different the responses would be from a positive psychologist or a defensive pessimist on this issue:
Scott: “Ya know, I’m really worried about my technology failing during this virtual training…”
Positive psychologist: “I’m sure it will work. Focus on the good.”
Pessimist: “Technology never works. Nothin’ you can do about it.”
Defensive pessimist: “There’s a chance it’ll fail, so just to be sure, what actions are you going to take to ensure it doesn’t?”
This is exactly what I’m talking in one of my favorite phrases: Expect the Best; Prepare for the Worst, which is a mental strategy I used with endurance athletes many years ago but is applicable to anything in life.
I realize it’s not what you hear in mainstream high achievement psychology. But I’m hoping it’ll help you recognize different thought patterns for yourself or for those around you, and to tailor your advice accordingly.
One important distinction between pessimists and defensive pessimists: pessimists think GLOBALLY.
If I say to myself, “this entire virtual training is going to be a massive failure,” I can’t take an action step to rectify that specific situation. It’s not concrete. But if I pinpoint localized aspects (like technology, messaging, interaction, etc.), I can then do something about it.
To sign off, I’m curious, do you believe in defensive pessimism and do you use it in your life?