Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

Lessons from a Pessimist: Make Your Pessimism Productive

written on Monday, March 20, 2023

This year I decided that I want to share my most important learnings about engineering, teams and quite frankly personal mental health. My hope is that those who want to learn from me find it useful.

I consider myself a functional and pragmatic pessimist. I tend to err on the side of anticipating the worst outcome most of the time. This mindset often leads me to assume that things are more difficult than they actually are, but it also highlights potential pitfalls along the way. In some ways, this is a coping mechanism, but it also aids in problem-solving and sets my expectations low, frequently resulting in pleasant surprises.

However, in recent years, I've more and more encountered a different kind of pessimism in others that I deem destructive. This type of pessimism sees no good in the world and renders people feeling powerless. I thought it might be worthwhile to share why I am not entirely consumed by gloom.

Destructive pessimism involves either wanting or expecting things to fail. At first glance, the aspect of not expecting success may appear similar to how I operate, but there's a subtle distinction. I generally anticipate that things will be challenging but still achievable, and when it matters, I want them to succeed. An extreme example of destructive pessimism on the other hand is expecting climate change to end the world and assuming society will do nothing to prevent it.

Whatever I personally do, I want it to be successful. I don't search for reasons why something won't work; instead, I focus on how to make it work while addressing or avoiding the issues I see along the way. That does not make me an optimist, that just makes me someone who wants to get stuff done and someone who strives for positive outcomes. On the other hand optimism to me is expecting to succeed against all odds, something I do not do. I fully expect that there will be failure along the way. (I also love venting about stuff I don't like even if it's not at all productive).

Many individuals in today's economy worry about their retirement and harbor a general negative sentiment about nearly everything, from the unfairness of the labor market and increasing poverty to climate change and more. Believe it or not, I share much of this negative sentiment, but I've learned never to let such thoughts govern my life. Dwelling on negativity regarding your employer, job prospects, government, economy, or environment — especially when it's difficult to influence these aspects — leads to nothing but unhappiness and depression.

Our times are marked by a number of transformative events. A recent conversation about AI I had with some folks I think is quite illustrative about how you can be a pessimist yet still be excited and forward looking. What's happening with AI at the moment makes a lot of people deeply uncomfortable. On the one hand some think that their job is at risk, others are trying to fight that future out of fear by attacking the foundations of it from all kinds of different angles. This fight comes from copyright law, various moral aspects as well as downplaying the status-quo capabilities of AI. All of these things are absolutely worth considering! You might remember from a recent blog post about AI that I myself posted something here that outlines some of the potential issues with AI. Nevertheless, AI will continue to advance, and being afraid of it is simply unproductive. Rather than becoming despondent about AI, my pessimistic side assumes that things can go wrong and acts accordingly, all while giving the technology a fair chance.

I am absolutely convinced that it's important to recognize the difference between a pragmatic form of pessimism and destructive pessimism. And as cheesy as it sounds, try to surround yourself with supportive individuals who can help you maintain a positive outlook and try to be that person for others. You don't have to be an optimist for wanting to succeed!

This entry was tagged lessons and thoughts