The Good, Bad and Ugly of Pessimism for Lawyers

Pessimism isn’t totally bad. As I mentioned before, the ability to see the downside risk in every situation has value, particularly for lawyers. You can prepare for bad outcomes before they happen, and mitigate the ones you can’t prevent. Companies pay a lot of money for that. Lives can depend on it.

ghostly woman

Pessimism can turn your dreams to ghosts. That's no way to live.

Pessimists also have a much more objective view of reality than optimists, according to Dr. Martin Seligman in his 1990 book Learned Optimism.

Seligman posits that most depressed people are also, not coincidentally, pessimists. Just because you’re a pessimist does not necessarily mean you are depressed, but the evidence is clear that pessimists are far more likely

to become depressed than optimists. Statistically, most depressives score somewhere on the pessimist side of the scale, and most nondepressed people score on the optimist side of the scale. (You can find out where you are on the pessimism/optimism continuum by taking this questionnaire from Seligman’s website at Penn, where he collects anonymized data for his research.)

Pessimists—Including Lawyers—See Reality More Clearly

Seligman relates an experiment conducted by Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson, in which subjects were either given control over turning on a light via a button, or they were given a button but no control over the light—it just turned on randomly. The subjects were then asked to rate how much control they had over the light. The subjects who had been previously classified as depressed—likely pessimists—were highly accurate about how much control they had over the light.

The nondepressed, presumably more optimistic subjects, were accurate about their level of control when they in fact had control. But surprisingly, the nondepressed subjects said they had far more control than they actually did when they were in fact helpless to control the light. This pattern of reality distortion by optimists has been borne out in lots of research.

Benign Reality Distortion—Better Than You Think

So for an optimist, or a pessimist in an optimistic frame of mind, “[r]eality is benignly distorted to give dreams room to flourish,” as Seligman rather charmingly puts it. For my money, that’s the key reason pessimists need to work their way toward optimism: If you’re joined at the hip to the harsh reality that life can routinely dish up, your dreams don’t have a place to exist. They die. Ultimately, refusing to dream costs you a life worth living. A life without dreams is a gray, dim walking death.

Optimism can be characterized as “the capacity to act on the hope that reality will turn out better than it usually does.” (L.O., p. 108) Optimism contains the seeds of our best lives and work—plans, dreams, ideas that make us and our world better and happier. Remember in the 1980s, only a few mad dreamers dared to conceive of a world where all computers could be connected. Now, we have iPhones and Blackberries and mountains of information from the profound to the ridiculous literally at our fingertips.

Pessimists, who look only at what seems realistically possible—as in, has it happened before—don’t usually innovate. They may be visited with wild and wonderful dreams, and maybe even pursue those dreams a bit, but when the going gets tough, they give up. That voice in their head tells them that good people never win, the other shoe is about to drop, that Murphy’s law always prevails, that style always trumps substance—whatever their pessimistic explanation usually is.

How Objectivity Screws You

But I know lawyers are fond, very fond indeed, of objectivity and accurate perceptions. I’m not suggesting that you aim to completely turn off your pessimistic views, especially when they actually serve you well. If you’re in a situation where the cost of failure is high, like a pilot, a surgeon, or yes even a lawyer advising a client about whether to omit information from an SEC filing, a ruthlessly accurate view of the situation is key.

What happens to pessimistic lawyers, though, is their doom-and-gloom outlook bleeds into all parts of their lives, not just the parts of work where it’s useful. Pessimism creates the thought/reality that if a date doesn’t go well, it’s because you’re not loveable. If you have a fight with your spouse or significant other, you’re going to break up. If you don’t get a response to your resume, it’s because you’re completely unqualified for any job outside of law, and you’ll never be able to escape.

Still think you prefer to live in the deadly accurate world of pessimism all the time? Here are some of Seligman’s other findings about pessimism (L.O., p. 113):

  • Pessimism promotes depression;
  • Pessimism produces inertia rather than activity in the face of setbacks;
  • Pessimism feels bad subjectively—blue, down, worried, anxious;
  • Pessimism is self-fulfilling. Pessimists don’t persist in the face of challenges, and therefore fail more frequently—even when success is attainable;
  • Pessimism is associated with poor physical health; and
  • Even when pessimists are right and things turn out badly, they still feel worse than optimists. Their explanatory style now converts the predicted setback into a disaster, a disaster into a catastrophe.

Now you long-time readers know I don’t come here and tell you a bunch of sobering stuff without some solutions in mind. So next time, I’ll talk about containment strategies for keeping pessimism in its place, and embracing optimism during an alternative legal career search/quest to change your life.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer and recovering pessimist. She coaches attorneys on giving up pessimism and getting resiliency and a better life. Try coaching and see the difference in your own life—a free, no-obligation sample session is yours for the asking. Contact her at to schedule yours today.

5 thoughts on “The Good, Bad and Ugly of Pessimism for Lawyers

  1. Pessimism also promotes financial gain when you are short selling the stock market during a financial crisis or major bear market.

    So there is at least one cross-industry transferable skill associated with pessimism.

    • JP – but isn’t seeing a downside risk and then changing it into a opportunity to create a positive gain a sort of optimism? Oh hoooo…. 😉

      • Yes, but profiting off of bear markets is not something to be discussed in polite company. People are generally upset when their retirement funds are cut by 50%.

        People get annoyed with you when you get excited when the stock market crashes. And by mid-2008, I didn’t even own any bear market funds anymore since the government was mucking with everything.

  2. Pingback: Magical Thinking and Your Legal Career « Leaving the Law

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