A healthy dose of pessimism can be a boon – but take a spoonful of sugar, too
There’s been much written on embracing your natural pessimism (if you are, in fact, a pessimist), on how pessimism spells prudence, and how a healthy dose of it has surprising benefits. But a spoonful of sugar may also help if your pessimism is linked to self-doubt and perfectionism.
“Research shows that lawyers are not only generally more pessimistic than the general population, but that law school and practice encourage and reward pessimism as an attribute,” Vancouver litigator Brook Greenberg wrote in a Canadian Lawyer opinion column.
“Both law school and practice select for pessimistic perfectionists. While these traits may help propel some to career success, they also appear to increase susceptibility to depression, anxiety and substance use,” he wrote.
Social science has shown that law, unlike other professional programs and professions, selects for pessimism, Greenberg said in an email. “Most other professions reward optimism.”
However, he adds, “it makes sense that law, which tasks us with identifying the worst case scenarios and guarding our clients against them, selects more for pessimists.”
Pessimism as a virtue for lawyers
Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies positive psychology, says most optimists do better in life than merited by their talents alone.
But with lawyers, the opposite is true.
Seligman’s survey of law students at the University of Virginia found that pessimists got better grades, were more likely to make law review and got better job offers.
“In law,” he told [The Wall Street Journal], “pessimism is considered prudence.”
And what’s needed for a successful career is grit and a growth mindset, not about blindly following a passion, writes Keith Lee in the “Above the Law” blog.
“Optimism can make you overly confident in your position, ignorant of opposing facts, and reluctant to examine every aspect of an issue. None of which is valuable or desirable in the practice of law.”
Be a defensive pessimist
Lawyer Jennifer Warren, who is now Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law, says the “defensive pessimism” she practised in law school scared her into studying more.
“While the overconfident optimist may not see the need to study, the more pessimistic student may be motivated to consistently and thoroughly prepare because they see it as the only way to achieve their goal,” Warren writes. “The key is to maintain your self-belief while never feeling that you can just rest on your laurels.”
Pessimism may also help appreciate your opportunities, she writes, because the pessimist won’t anticipate being selected for moot court team, the law review editorial board or the unpaid internship, and “may be more grateful when they are given the opportunity.”
Being strategic can help pessimistic lawyers succeed
In “Is There a Healthy Dose of Pessimism?,” Wellbeing columnist Jayne Reardon cites an article proposing that pessimism was good for lawyers and finding that “various negative emotions, such as anger, cynicism, and frustration, each serve an important function in the work of a lawyer. These emotions strengthen the attorney and bolster his or her ability to effectively get the job done and serve the client’s interests.
“Lawyers must anticipate the worst and take steps to mitigate risks for clients,” Reardon continues. “While pessimism might counteract the journey to success in other professions, a glass-half-empty attitude might be what places a lawyer ahead of the pack. Lawyers are compensated for being skeptical and cynical on behalf of their clients and worrying that every potential problem that may arise will do so.”
Pessimism improves performance
Researchers have suggested that defensive pessimism is a strategy that people who are anxious use to help them manage their anxiety, writes Fuschia Sirois in “The surprising benefits of being a pessimist.”
“The crucial factor is setting low expectations for the outcome of a particular plan or situation … and then envisioning the details of everything that might possibly go wrong to make these worst-case scenarios a reality,” Sirois writes. “This gives the defensive pessimist a plan of action to ensure that any imagined mishaps won’t actually happen – such as practising for the interview and getting there early.”
The benefits of defensive pessimism also extends to work performance, she continues, citing one study showing this is connected to a negative mood. When prompted to be in a good mood, defensive pessimists performed poorly on a series of word puzzles, but when they were put in a negative mood -- by being instructed to imagine how a scenario might have negative outcomes -- they performed significantly better.
“This suggests that they harness their negative mood to motivate themselves to perform better.”
But don’t let pessimism weigh you down
Professor Seligman has described pessimism as “both highly adaptive for the practising lawyer and also one of three psychological factors that demoralize lawyers,” Reardon writes. The other two factors are feeling that one has little decision-making ability in high-stress situations, and “like you are part of a win-loss enterprise,” with pressure, especially in large firms, to bill a lot of hours, and feeling like a cog in the wheel.
“The bottom line is that we all seek meaning in our lives—including at work,” says Reardon. “We need to remind ourselves of the noble reasons we went to law school and the importance of seeking justice and fairness for our clients. And we should seek work environments where these feelings are fuelled.”