One of my biggest pet peeves is when a pessimist says, “I’m not a pessimist. I’m a realist.”
Truthfully, most of us think we’re “realists.” We see the world the way we see it. But how we actually behave is a different matter, and reveals the truth about our outlook. A “realist” who complains about how the country will be worse under President X is really a pessimist. A “realist” who thinks that because she’s won three hands in a row means she’s more likely to win the next hand is optimistic, but in a very bad way.
Generally, pessimism is seen as a bad thing. It prevents us from going after our dreams. Yet, smart investors rely on pessimism to hedge bets and not lose money. And though glass-half-full optimism is typically praised by society and touted by successful entrepreneurs, Bernie Madoff went to prison because of his faith in his ability to beat the financial system without getting caught.
Fact is, Optimism vs. Pessimism—one’s measure of faith in the future—is an incomplete yardstick for future success. But when we add second dimension to that yardstick, we reveal a combination that makes optimism much more powerful. That dimension is credulity.
The differences between Optimism and Credulity, Skepticism and Pessimism, are subtle. But they’re crucial. On their face, credulity seems to be a marker of good faith, a noble value, and skepticism is thought of as grouchy or stubborn.
A compulsive gambler, is both optimistic and credulous, believing she can and will win. A conspiracy nut is perhaps worst of all: he is both eager to believe and pessimistic about the future. Though people can find success with any of these combinations, the most counter-intuitive quadrant is the one where the most breakthrough success can be found: optimistic, but skeptical. This is where the innovators reside, where inventors who dare to doubt the status quo ask the questions that need to be asked in order for the world to change.
While credulous optimists rely on good winds to push their sails (and often find them), skeptical optimists ask questions like, “Do we need sails?”
Once you recognize the trait, it’s easy to see why the world’s great change-makers fit in this category, and why skeptical optimism is under-appreciated. Steve Jobs was one of the world’s greatest optimists, and that’s what people remember him for. But he was also incredibly demanding and skeptical. He was constantly unsatisfied, consistently pushing back against what was shown him or what was conventional. He continually said, “That’s not good enough.”
Originally appeared on Linked In, by Shane Snow.