The Worst of All Possible Worlds
Optimist or pessimist? Take the test.
Not sure which strategy you use? Take Julie Norem's test, reprinted here from The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (Basic Books, 2001).
Think of a situation where you want to do your best. It may be related to work, to your social life, or to any of your goals. When you answer the following questions, please think about how you prepare for that kind of situation. Rate how true each statement is for you.
___ I often start out expecting the worst, even though I will probably do OK.
___ I worry about how things will turn out.
___ I carefully consider all the possible outcomes.
___ I often worry that I won't be able to carry through my intentions.
___ I spend lots of time imagining what could go wrong.
___ I imagine how I would feel if things went badly.
___ I try to picture how I could fix things if something went wrong.
___ I'm careful not to become overconfident in these situations.
I spend a lot of time planning when one of these situations is coming up.
___ In these situations sometimes I worry more about looking like a fool than doing really well.
___ Considering what can go wrong helps me to prepare.
To figure out where you stand, add your scores for all the questions. Possible scores range from 12 to 84, and higher scores indicate a stronger tendency to use defensive pessimism. If you score above 50, you would qualify as a defensive pessimist. If you score below 30, you would qualify as a strategic optimist.
If you score between 30 and 50, you may use both strategies, or neither strategy consistently. How you score will be influenced by the kind of situation you were thinking about when you answered the questions, because you may use different strategies in different situations.
Hone (or change) your strategy
Defensive pessimists are anxious by nature, and the very idea of performing a task activates that tendency. Their goal is to manage their anxiety, recognizing what might go wrong and what events they can control. They create contingency plans, and after the task they remember proactively, learning from their mistakes without dwelling on them.
While defensive pessimists are comfortable with this approach, other people aren't. So defensive pessimists should:
contrast, strategic optimists are not by nature anxious, so their goal is to stay
that way. They prepare for tasks but don't let themselves think about how they'll
do-this induces anxiety, which hinders performance. Afterward they tend to attribute
success to their own talents and ability, and failure to bad luck or others' poor
If you're a strategic optimist, Norem has two pieces of advice: work with someone who is a defensive pessimist, and "Listen to him or her!" A defensive pessimist's trouble-shooting habits will rescue you from your greatest stumbling blocks: overconfidence and underpreparation.
defensive pessimists, avoiders and self-handicappers are anxious by nature.
But their "coping" strategies are self-defeating. Because avoiders stay
away from situations that induce anxiety, they can't gain experience, much less
succeed. For self-handicappers, in contrast, the thought of failure induces anxiety,
so they procrastinate or self-medicate, creating prepackaged excuses. Both types
are so focused on avoiding anxiety that they miss out on "flow," or
the enjoyable process of losing oneself in a task.
If you fall into either camp:
No matter what your strategy, Norem offers hope: "Strategies-especially compared to traits like introversion and extroversion-are relatively changeable," she writes. "Rationally, we should change strategies, or drop current strategies, when we no longer need them or when they don't work well; likewise, we should be able to learn new strategies."
you use strategies inconsistently, she recommends paying attention to when you
feel the least anxious and notice which strategy you're using. When deciding whether
to change strategies, evaluate your goal, Norem advises, and your approach's costs
and benefits in reaching that goal. If your strategy no longer works, the best
strategy is to let it go.
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