Realistic Optimism

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

How should we think about the future? Should we be pessimistic or optimistic? Should we keep our dreams in check or reach for the stars? Is it wiser to focus on what could go wrong or imagine what might go right? There are valid reasons to favor any of these approaches. There are times when pessimism seems smarter than optimism, but there are also times when the opposite is true.

The solution to this conundrum is realistic optimism.

There is actually a spectrum of ways to think about the future, and, as with most other psychological concepts, spectrum thinking helps us see more clearly.

As usual, the middle-ground is better than the extremes.

On the far left, we have unrealistic pessimism, which is overblown negative thinking. When people imagine that all sorts of catastrophes will ensue from a minor setback, they are being irrationally pessimistic. This is plainly unhelpful.

On the far right, we have unrealistic optimism, which is unrestrained positive thinking. When people believe that only good things will come to them because the entire universe is conspiring to ensure that they’re wildly successful, they’re being irrationally optimistic. This, too, is unhelpful.

In the middle of the spectrum, we find healthier approaches, grounded in reality.

Realistic pessimism takes an accurate assessment of reality and imagines probable outcomes, but it pays special attention to negative outcomes, giving them extra weight. This approach can be very helpful in certain careers where risk-assessment is critical, such as loan officers, building inspectors, and surgeons. However, when it comes to personal growth and career trajectory, realistic pessimism is problematic.

Realistic pessimists are afraid of taking risks, afraid of trying new things, afraid of leaving their comfort zone. They foresee obstacles, but they don’t foresee themselves finding ways around those obstacles. They see their own abilities and the abilities of others as fixed. They fail to recognize that by struggling, people can learn and improve and thereby expand the set of options that is realistically possible. Their view is limited to only what is possible right now, so they fail to imagine what might become possible later. As a result, they remain stuck, inhibited by their own pessimism.

Realistic optimism is, for most purposes, a better approach. Realistic optimists also take an accurate assessment of reality and imagine probable outcomes. But because they do not give the negative outcomes special weight, they are unburdened by loss-aversion and risk-aversion. They do foresee obstacles, but they also foresee themselves finding workarounds. And, most importantly, realistic optimists believe in their capacity for growth. This allows them to tap into their incredible human potential. They imagine what could become possible, and they work hard to make it a reality.

Both of these realistic mindsets are self-fulfilling prophecies. Both realistic pessimists and realistic optimists wind up proving themselves right. But which life would you rather live?

Hard Work

What sets realistic optimism apart from its neighbors on the spectrum is that it both inspires and depends upon hard work. Realistic optimists believe that they can succeed, which encourages them to try, and they know that persistent effort is the only way to succeed, so they work very hard.

Unrealistic optimism – the stuff of vision boards and the so-called “law of attraction” – discourages hard work. If all I have to do is imagine what I want in order to get it, why put in any effort? If all it takes to succeed is to believe that I’m going to succeed, why try? The unscientific self-help gurus who peddle this crap are certainly selling an appealing idea. Who wouldn’t want to take the easy road to wealth and happiness? The only problem is the easy road doesn’t exist.

Realistic pessimism also discourages hard work, but in a more subtle way. If success is very unlikely, then why should I bother trying? If years of hard work will prove to be all for naught because of a looming obstacle, then I’d be a fool to put in all that effort in the first place. Realistic pessimism causes people to believe the excuses their minds generate. This actually has an odd sort of appeal: It encourages laziness. Choosing to put in hard work toward a goal without any guarantee of success is a difficult choice to make. It would be easier to just watch another episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the long run, however, this lifestyle is very unsatisfying.

Growth Mindset

While realistic optimism is a form of positive thinking, it is radically different from what most people think of as positive thinking. Realistic optimism comes to us from the scientific field of positive psychology. It is grounded in modern neuroscience and supported by rigorous research.

In particular, realistic optimism aligns very well with a growth mindset. Stanford researcher and bestselling author Carol Dweck has outlined the distinction between a “growth mindset” and a “fixed mindset.”1 Here’s a breakdown:

The foundational belief of the growth mindset – that improvement is possible – has been shown scientifically to be true, while the fixed-mindset belief that improvement is not possible is false, and only seems to be true because it can operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Deliberate practice has been widely shown to be the way to walk the mastery path for any skill.2 And clever strategy, when combined with hard work, is a force to be reckoned with. We can improve.

Furthermore, the twin sciences of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis demonstrate the human brain’s amazing capacity to adapt by rewiring and growing new neurons. If you repeatedly do something, your brain becomes more adept at performing that action. If you challenge yourself, your brain grows stronger in order to meet the challenge. Things may be hard now, but you can build momentum, and they will get easier.

As realistic optimists push themselves and search for better techniques, they become better and better, and outcomes that were previously out of reach becomes all but inevitable.


Realistic optimism also inoculates you from giving up when things get hard. If something gets in your way, you will have the confidence to roll up your sleeves and start digging for solutions.

“Confidence is not a guarantee of success, but a pattern of thinking that will improve your likelihood of success, a tenacious search for ways to make things work.” –John Eliot3

Whatever happens, you are an active agent. You will do everything you can to find a way. That is how you should think about the future.


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Works Cited

1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.

2 Colvin, Geoff. Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else. Portfolio, 2010.

3 Eliot, John. Overachievement: The New Model for Exceptional Performance. Portfolio Hardcover, 2004.