Behavioral Science

I Find Your Lack of Pessimism Disturbing

by . October 29th, 2014

There is an abundance of self-help books on positive thinking nowadays, selling laws of attraction, chicken soup, pseudo-quantum physics, thoughts becoming actual tangible things or whatchamacallit. Even the Force, lightsabers and Jedi mind tricks pale in comparison to what these authors claim positive thinking could do. Books on positive thinking rake in an estimated $ 10-11 billion per year in the US alone.


Impressive, yes, but a closer look on the industry shows that self-help book readers are often repeat offenders. If you buy this kind of book, chances are you probably bought another one within the last eighteen months. It kinda begs the question, if these books are indeed effective on solving problems, why the high rate of purchases, especially repeat purchases?

But that’s another story. What I’m here to tell you is this:

“The perversity of the universe tends towards a maximum.”


Watch your head.

That might actually sound like something you could find in one of these books. But believe me, there’s actual science in that. This is called Finagle’s Law and it is a takeoff of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

But you probably have heard it as Murphy’s Law (which is in fact, different) stated this way:

“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

You might say that this is extremely pessimistic and I admit that it is. But hear me out, young padawan.

Positive thinking is always promoted and entrenched especially early on careers. Companies encourage their employees to maintain a positive attitude, even spending on seminars on such topics to keep them engaged and motivated. Top management is also at the top of those with an optimistic outlook in life. How else would they cope with the problems of starting a business, much less maintaining it?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to argue in favor of pessimism. Saying one view is better than the other in the business environment is just downright stupid.


Photo credit: Erik Daniel Drost

I don’t discount the benefits of positive thinking. In fact, years of research back it up. Happiness is not only an effect of career success, it can actually lead to success. A University of California paper concluded that happy workers perform much better than their unhappy colleagues. A lot more support this claim.

However, I think that today’s business culture overemphasizes this kind of attitude so much that it can potentially be detrimental not only to the person but to the business itself. Positive thinking may give you the warm fuzzies, but the very nature of entrepreneurship, risk, makes it counterproductive.

Pessimism brings caution. And caution is what makes you take a step back and assess if what you’re doing is right.

Which brings us back to Finagle’s Law. By taking a bit of the pessimistic route and admitting that there is a possibility of things going extremely wrong, you could inoculate yourself and prepare for it, even create measures to avoid it altogether. But when it does happen, you won’t feel as bad as if you didn’t see it coming.

Or as Yoda said:


“Named must your fear be, before banish it you can.”

Which is not to say you should reject the warm fuzzies and the sunlight and the light side of the Force. Optimism has its advantages, especially in starting up a new business. But overemphasis on positive thinking, or worse, lack of positive action or caution isn’t good for you. Only when paired with pessimism, and a view of the possible roadblocks, will there be the right mindset for the business environment.

The glass is half-empty and half-full. Now take it and drink.

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Do you agree on my thoughts on pessimism in business? Tell me your thoughts in the comment box below!


Kevin is a reader first, a writer second, and a gamer somewhere in between. When not rooting for Tyrion Lannister for the Iron Throne, he's probably writing some morbid short story. He enjoys some surreal art, clever advertising campaigns, and a warm cup of coffee while reading Murakami.