BY Art Markman 3 MINUTE READ

When you have concerns about the future, people often admonish you to look on the bright side and to find the silver lining inside that cloud. And pessimism can sometimes be debilitating, particularly if you become so convinced that you cannot succeed at some venture that you stop trying.

But, your ability to see the negative might actually be really valuable for you if you use it right. Here’s how.


When you plan for the future, it is critical to figure out what is going to go wrong before bad things happen. The more aware you are of the obstacles that barricade the road to success, the more effort you can put in to avoid them. You can enlist the support of other people to help you deal with potential problems when you reach out ahead of time.

If you start a project by convincing yourself that it has to succeed, then you will have to improvise in the face of each problem that comes up. Sometimes, you may succeed under pressure, but often, those obstacles create delays—some of which may kill a project.

Your inner pessimist is always trying to find reasons why a particular plan is going to fail. Don’t silence it. Just use that inner voice to generate the list of factors you need to deal with before you get started. You may just thank your inner pessimist later for playing a huge role in your success.


Another thing that your pessimistic tendencies do for you is to help you find ways that the world could be better. It is tempting to wallow in the list of things that could be improved and wish you had lived in some previous golden age when things were better.

But, those aspects of the world that can be improved are also opportunities. They represent issues that your efforts could actually rectify. Gabriele Oettingen has done great research demonstrating that when you contrast the present with some more desirable future (in this case, one that has fewer problems), you create energy to narrow that gap.

Use that energy to get together with other people to make progress fixing a problem you have seen. That does mean that you need to look for problems that you think your efforts can influence. That is, the gaps between present and future that are most likely to drive action are the ones you think can be bridged by your efforts.


Worst case, your low expectations for the future can set you up for happiness later. People often engage in defensive pessimism: you may assume that the road ahead of you is difficult and that you are unlikely to succeed.

Because you have concerns that you have not yet done a good enough job, the anxiety you create by focusing on bad outcomes may lead you to work longer and harder on a task than you would if you were more confident about the outcome. That extra effort may actually increase your chance of success.

In addition, when you set your expectations for the future low, you will often find yourself pleasantly surprised. A client is happier with a project than you expected. A customer orders more than you thought they would. An audience is more impressed with your talk than you anticipated. These pleasant surprises provide a nice reward for a job well done. So, your defensive pessimism may help you succeed at hard tasks and then help you to enjoy it more when you do.



Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations.

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