Confession time: We have no idea if the ideas in the article that follow will help people make the right turns on their road to success, but, hell, we loved the wording of the title. So, without further ado:
by Adam Grant
If you want to achieve a major goal, conventional wisdom says to think positive. Picture yourself delivering the perfect presentation, and absorb the energy of the audience. Envision the ideal job interview, and imagine yourself on cloud nine when you get the offer. Although these strategies sound compelling, it turns out that they often backfire. Many of us are more successful when we focus on the reasons that we’re likely to fail.
In a series of clever studies, the psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor compared strategic optimists and defensive pessimists. If you’re a strategic optimist, you envision the best possible outcome and then eagerly plan to make it happen. If you’re a defensive pessimist, even if you’ve been successful in the past, you know this time could be different. You start picturing all the things that could go wrong. What if I spill coffee on the interviewer? What if I accidentally deliver the presentation in a foreign language? What if I forget my own name?
Most people assume that strategic optimists outperform defensive pessimists, because they benefit from confidence and high expectations. Norem and Cantor found that defensive pessimists were more anxious and set lower expectations for themselves in analytical, verbal, and creative tasks. Yet they didn’t perform any worse.
“At first, I asked how these people were able to do so well despite their pessimism,” Norem writes in The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. “Before long, I began to realize that they were doing so well because of their pessimism… negative thinking transformed anxiety into action.” By imagining the worst-case scenario, defensive pessimists motivate themselves to prepare more and try harder.
Strategic optimists and defensive pessimists succeed under different circumstances. If you’re a defensive pessimist, or you’re attempting to motivate one, the strategies that prove effective are often the reverse of what you expect.