Pessimism Vs Realism

Ben Charles
4 min readMay 29, 2021

The other day I had an epiphany. Not a very mind-blowing or immediately transformative one mind you but an epiphany nonetheless.

It had to do with my tendency to be pessimistic about almost everything, almost all of the time.

This is a trait I imagine I share with a large number of people and probably for a similar reason: not wanting to be wrong.

I have something approaching a genuine fear of being wrong about things. I know no one exactly likes being wrong about things, particularly significant or important things but for me this fairly normal trait is exaggerated to what I suspect is a somewhat unhealthy level.

Anything from giving a wrong answer at a pub quiz or mis-remembering what that actress that you can’t quite place has been in before, to getting a new colleagues name wrong or backing a bad idea in the workplace, gives me a visceral reaction which feels something like shame.

Importantly for my epiphany, this desire to not be wrong also extends as far as wanting to avoid the unexpected. Being blindsided by some unexpected news or an unforeseen event makes me feel like I was ‘wrong’ in the sense that my expectations for how events would unfold turned out to be incorrect, even if there was absolutely no way I could possibly have predicted the outcome.

This has all culminated in a propensity for me to be pessimistic to the nth degree in an effort to reduce the likelihood of being wrong. This had lead to me a) being less likely to offer genuine thoughts or opinions lest I risk being proved wrong at a later date and b) believing that the worst will always happen so that when it does I can sit back smugly in my chair and say “I told you so” to… no one in particular.

The problems with this approach to life should be obvious and to be fair to myself it’s not that I was unaware of the negative consequences of living a life of pessimism (less enjoyment and pleasure for myself, being a bit more of a drag and bore to be around for other people, less motivation, less creativity, I could go on…) but un-doing this habit of many years is easier said than done.

So. Back to that epiphany.

I’ve always found it very difficult to accept well-meaning advice that I can’t get behind logically. For instance somebody telling me that I don’t need to be pessimistic all the time and that it’s ok to allow myself to be wrong without self criticism, despite being perfectly valid and true, doesn’t usually have much success in getting through my thick skull.

One of the few ways I’ve found of actually helping myself to make positive changes is through what I have come to see as backing myself into a corner psychologically; smacking myself with some cold hard logic that proves the way I am thinking/behaving is not the best use of my time and resources.

The other day I managed to do just this with the whole pessimism thing.

I realised that the best that constant pessimism could do for me was to very occasionally mean that I wasn’t as taken aback by bad news as I otherwise might have been and that I might occasionally not say something silly that I might otherwise have said.

In exchange for this I would more or less guarantee that I would in fact be wrong more often and about more things than if I took a more realistic, middle of the road approach.

Let me explain.

For the vast majority of us, bad things do not necessarily happen more often than good things, or neutral things (it’s also incredibly difficult to actually classify things as good or bad in the moment as we don’t know what the future consequences of apparently good or bad things will actually be but a topic for another post perhaps).

This means that by assuming the worst at all times in an effort to ‘protect’ myself from being wrong I am assuming that bad things will happen way more often than they actually will, thereby overestimating the occurrence of bad things and paradoxically being ‘wrong’ way more often than if I were to take a more realistic view of what might happen.

Now this might feel to some like a very roundabout and intellectually exhausting way of saying “oh lighten up will you” and you’re probably right.

It has so far however been an effective argument for that back-myself-into-a-corner thing and has actually had a positive effect on my mental outlook even in the few days since it occurred to me so I’m calling this a win.




Ben Charles

Writing about self improvement, travel, finance, big ideas, technology and anything else I find interesting.