The Merits of Pessimism
“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to our society. The optimist invents the airplane and the pessimist the parachute.” — G.B. Stern
I’ve heard it said that one of the most valuable skills an entrepreneur can have is an abnormal capacity for optimism. This makes sense: in an environment fraught with incredible risk, large-scale uncertainty, and emotional distress, there may be nothing more valuable than optimism and perseverance. Founding or leading a start-up consumes your life, in essence it is your life, and you absolutely need to believe that your immense effort will someday translate into something tangible. But though profound optimism is a priceless asset, a team composed entirely of optimists may be one that is incomplete or flawed.
When an idea is early in development, it’s easy for a group of optimists to get mutually excited about their fantastic solution, or as the phrase goes, ‘they all drink their own Kool-Aid’. Initially, this excitement may result in technology concerns or hurdles being overlooked or downplayed, and a precious opportunity to improve on original ideas early in the process may be missed. In this way, the strategic balance provided by a team pessimist can play an integral role in the success of any new project.
Optimists and pessimists inherently complement one another because they envision entirely different outcomes to the same scenario. Upon hearing a new idea, the optimist will get excited to build something and test the concept. The pessimist instead fixates upon why the idea might not work, and points out why it needs to be improved. By anticipating the worst, a pessimist can help a team identify potential downfalls early and move rapidly to mitigate these risks. Though too much pessimism can be a burden for teams (early prototypes don’t need to be perfect to provide incredibly valuable information), a hint of it can be productive. Balance is the key. It’s no secret that balanced teams tend to be successful, and this concept extends far beyond the reaches of start-up life: A lot of crooks and no-goods were brought to justice by a team including Scooby (terrified pessimist) and Scrappy (aggressive optimist) Doo.
Our team of Biodesign Fellows at Stanford was a good example of a mixed and balanced team. By my account, our five-member team was composed of one bright-eyed eternal optimist, two cautious optimists (including myself), one staunch pragmatist, and a skeptical but constructive pessimist. Initially, working closely with a skeptic was challenging from an emotional standpoint: when you are excited about an idea, it can be deflating to hear resistance instead of mutual excitement from a team member. But looking back, it was this same resistance that pushed me to improve my ideas, and without it I would have burned a lot of calories perfecting non-ideal concepts. I accepted this resistance as a challenge; I thought my theories were right, but admittedly I hadn’t proven them sufficiently to convince my teammates. In one case, it turned out that I was wrong, and my additional testing led me to understand our technology’s real mechanism of action. This true understanding allowed for key technology improvements and refinements. In another case, it turned out that I was right, but with my new testing results I could prove that I was right beyond any doubt to the most important skeptics: investors.
This experience opened my eyes a bit with regard to the benefits of pessimism, a concept that seemed foreign enough to me that I was compelled to write about it. So much energy is placed on corralling the negativity a pessimist brings. So many articles are written about how to manage a pessimist, how to engage a pessimist, and so forth. In larger companies, maybe these strategies are needed. But in a tight-knit group working on a very early project, perhaps the balance brought on by a constructive, engaged, and thoughtful naysayer outweighs any perceived negativity? If so, then maybe it’s right to stir a teaspoon of constructive pessimism into that Kool-Aid you are all drinking.