Work + Growth

Can Pessimistic Lawyers Be Positive Thinkers?


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  • Focus on outcomes, not failure
  • Channel your pessimism into readiness
  • Add positive spin to your pessimistic tendencies to strike a productive balance

Get a handle on how pessimism can creep into your lawyer life, and how you can flip the script to focus on the positive, improving your outcomes along with your outlook.

It probably comes as no surprise that lawyers overwhelmingly tend to be pessimists. Since we spend our day looking for—and preparing our clients for—the worst-case scenario, it’s only natural our profession encourages a tendency to look at the negative side of life.

And while a well-developed pessimistic outlook might be the key to professional success in law, pessimism also tends to damage relationships, life satisfaction, and impede that very same professional success.

The Problem with Pessimism

It inhibits risk. Risk, by nature, requires a healthy dose of optimism, or a belief in the chance that this leap can land you on solid ground. Too much pessimism and you won’t see the possible rewards of reaching out to that client, pursuing that opportunity, or interviewing for a new job. All you’ll focus on is the risk involved, and that might keep you stagnant.

It hurts your relationships. Ever heard about smiling and the world smiles with you? It’s not just a moralizing adage, it’s a reflection of how people respond to each other Pessimists tend to plan for the worst in relationships, meaning they tend to keep their feelings close —and invulnerability only encourages distance in their partners. Pessimism can also lead to increased stress and anxiety, both understandably damaging to significant relationships.

It decreases life satisfaction. And it also decreases life span, according to studies. The constant focus on negativity and expectation of the worst can be hard on heart and mind alike. While waiting for the worst case scenario to roll in, pessimists often lose sight of the goal: enjoying life as it is.

When has pessimistic thinking affected you negatively by hurting relationships or decreasing your general happiness?

But you don’t have to throw out your hard-earned pessimism just yet. After all, pessimism is a helpful trait—and not just for lawyers.

The Benefits of a Bit of Pessimism

Unlike the victory-focused optimism, pessimists are more likely to plan not to lose than to aim for a win. That means they will be detail-oriented, deliberate, and comfortable with criticism. Often, the pessimist sounds like the ideal employee, even if the optimist sounds like an ideal friend.

But there is a middle ground between optimism and pessimism. Or there can be, if you become a positive pessimist. 

Unlike their gloomier peers, the positive pessimist is just that: a positive-thinking pessimist, using both outlooks to prepare thoroughly for failure and aim for the goal of success at the same time. The positive pessimist isn’t the downer at the next client meeting. Instead, he reaps the benefits of considering the worst, without avoiding the possibility of a better outcome (or even the best case).

In other words, the positive pessimist separates negative thinking from pessimism.

Whereas pessimism simply expects and plans for failure, it’s only the negative thinker who assumes failure is a given. The positive pessimist isn’t looking at a glass half-empty, he’s looking for a glass that looks 50/50…and he’s preparing for both outcomes.

He’s the lawyer who aims for his goals, but first spends time preparing for contingency, failures, or bumps in the road.

She’s the lawyer who takes a chance, but instead of just setting up a safety net, does everything she can to avoid falling.

And most of all, the positive pessimist serves his clients by preparing them for every outcome —without unnecessary fear, worry, or stress.

In short, the positive and pessimistic lawyer is better for his clients and better for himself.

So can lawyers be positive thinkers? Absolutely. And you’ll be happier that way, too.