Can pessimism be a virtue?


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Can pessimism be a virtue? My impulse used to be to say „no.” Now I know that’s not true. I got inspired to write this post when I was listening to an episode of This is your life podcast. The title of the episode was How to wreck your future. In that episode, its hosts discuss the hidden dangers of pessimism. I listened to the discussion and noticed that I kept repeating in my head “This is not fair! You can’t say that someone is a pessimist and assume all these things based on that!” I decided that I’d debate with the thesis from that podcast. Keep reading to learn why I don’t agree with this idea and why I think pessimism can be a virtue.

Hidden dangers of pessimism

This is your life hosts, Michael Hyatt and Stu McLaren list five reasons why we can’t afford to be negative. They are:

  1. Pessimism kills your creativity.
  2. Pessimism harms you emotionally.
  3. Pessimism keeps you down professionally.
  4. Pessimism damages relationships.
  5. Pessimism makes you sick.

I won’t argue with all of the assumptions listed above. However, there is one I’d like to open a discussion with. Let’s talk about point #3 – Pessimism keeps you down professionally. Why that one? I meet a lot of people at work and in my private life who one might call pessimists. And I know that their „pessimism” doesn’t keep them down professionally. And I’ll try to explain why.

When Michael and Stu spoke on this point, they used words like negative, toxin, and poison. They stated that pessimists instantly criticize all ideas and list all the reasons why something can go wrong. They said that such people use this as an excuse to keep the status quo. And in the end, they added that this can influence the performance of a team and a company in a negative way.

I’m afraid that most of us tend to think similarly about pessimists. In the introduction I told you I believed that these statements were true. What has changed? Why do I currently think pessimism can be a virtue?

Deliberative vs pessimism

As you know, I believe in strengths-based development. When I started to study the 34 strengths described in Gallup’s methodology, I realized that many personality features are actually virtues even if they seem to be highly problematic at first sight. All you have to do is look deeply, change your perspective, and alter your way of thinking. The deliberative strength is a good example of one of these personality features. I was surprised to find it on Gallup’s list of strengths. I had to read the description a few times and meet a few people with that strength to understand its power.

What is deliberative?

Gallup gives the following description:

People exceptionally talented in the Deliberative theme are best described by the serious care they take in making decisions or choices. They anticipate obstacles.

People with this strength are risk analyzers. They plan ahead to know what can go wrong. They identify the dangers, weigh their impact, and then act deliberately. They act with care.

Does this sound familiar? Do you know such people? I bet you do. And I bet that you call them pessimists. I did as well; I’ll admit that!

I dare you to play a mind game – After reading the above description of deliberative, try to think of the deliberative strength as a virtue. Think about how it can be used in a positive way. A few examples:

  • Imagine that you’re planning a crazy road trip and someone gives you a list of possible risks, such as not being able to find a place to sleep or a good place to eat, or ending up in a bad part of a city. . With this in hand, you can prepare for your road trip better and avoid some dangerous situations. Maybe you’ll find a nicer place to sleep or eat. You can learn more about interesting things to see on the road. You will likely have a safer and more enjoyable trip.
  • You are working on a project and you have an idea for how to move forward with your task, but you are unsure if it will work. How precious is it to have someone to discuss your next steps with who has done some research on your plan? Instead of redoing everything again because you hit a blind spot, you can eliminate these possibilities in advance.
  • You are going to invest a lot of money. Wouldn’t you want to have someone who analyzes the possible risks of investing your money? That’s definitely a needed skill!

There you have it! Pessimism, or to be more precise, the deliberative strength, can be a virtue. You just have to know how to apply this way of thinking and acting in a productive way.

Raw vs mature deliberative

All strengths have a raw and a mature side (you can read more about this in my other blog post, and deliberative is no exception.

What can the raw state of the deliberative strength look like? Michael and Stu summarized this really well. If you can see all of the obstacles in front of you, but instead of analyzing them you just use them as excuses to do nothing, this is the raw state of your strength. If you communicate your doubts and the risks that you foresee in a negative way, this is also the raw state of the deliberative strength.
How can a mature deliberative look like? A person with a mature deliberative spots obstacles or other things that can go wrong and communicates them in a very considerate way. He/She lists all findings, but also gives details as to why these items are dangerous and how they can be eliminated. He/She knows what can go wrong, but instead of using this as an excuse not to act, he/she creates a plan for avoiding potential problems.

Can you see the difference?

How can you use that knowledge?

Are you a manager? Observe your employees. If you spot someone who you call a pessimist, try to think of him/her as deliberative. Talk to that person and understand how he/she thinks, feels, and acts. You can ask him/her to take a Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment to check for this strength. Try to find a role or tasks where that way of thinking can be productive. Have you thought about making that person responsible for testing? Or for refining plans? Have you thought about pairing that person with someone who has a thousand ideas per minute?

Are you a person with this strength? Are you perceived as a pessimist? Try to observe yourself and analyze how you communicate your doubts. In most cases, it is all about how you voice them. Ask your colleagues how you are perceived when you communicate in projects or during meetings. Find a role where you can use your talents in a productive way.

There is one more dimension of the deliberative. The deliberative approach is more visible in unknown, new, and chaotic environments. This is also where the need for a cautious approach is the greatest. The better the team functions, the more trust there is; the better an environment is organized, the less need there is for deliberative thinking. People with the deliberative strength will feel much more secure in such circumstances.

At the end of the podcast episode, Michael and Stu list four practical steps for getting out of the pessimist zone. You can also use them to change the way you act without changing who you really are.

Call to action

Observe your peers. Find someone you tend to call a pessimist. Try to think of him/her in a new light. Figure out how you can productively use the insight that person gives you. Talk to him/her; ask how he/she perceives the world. How could doing so benefit your cooperation?

If you want to learn more about the deliberative strength you can watch one of the below videos.


Photo by Maryland National GuardCC BY

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About me

My name is Dominik Juszczyk. I’m a productivity geek and a Gallup Strengths Coach. I try to focus on my strengths and embrace the chaos of everyday life, using my time to the fullest and enjoying my early morning runs.

My top 5 themes

Individualization | Arranger | Learner | Empathy | Intellection