Magazine article Management Today

Glass Half-Full or Glass Half-Empty

Magazine article Management Today

Glass Half-Full or Glass Half-Empty

Article excerpt

Optimist or pessimist - which will lead us to recovery? Emma De Vita checks with leaders of either temperament.

Is your glass half-full or half-empty? We're said to be a nation of Eeyores whose gloomy outlook on life is summed up by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the cheery soul who called human life 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. Pessimist Jon Moulton, chairman of Better Capital, agrees: 'He was a miserable devil, but in some ways it's true. If you're born in sub-Saharan Africa, that's rather accurate.'

But most of us are luckier than that. 'Think of the way our lives have improved beyond measure since Hobbes' time,' counters optimist Luke Johnson, chairman of Risk Capital Parters. 'That tells you we have grounds for optimism and we should not give way to feelings of gloom.'

But wasn't it blind optimism that caused the bubble that led to the recession? What else explains the hordes who took on 125% mortgages, or the 'creativity' of investment bankers who were too buoyed up by their own over-inflated confidence to appreciate the folly of their deeds. If only we'd all been a bit more pessimistic, then perhaps we wouldn't have found ourselves in the mess we're in now ...

'There is a prevailing but not proven view that it is wiser to be pessimistic than optimistic,' says Miranda Kennett, founder of First Class Coach. 'The advantage of being an active pessimist is that you are likely to explore the worst-case scenario and to have taken steps to avoid it happening.' After all, who needs over-optimistic surgeons, structural engineers or FDs?

On the other hand, optimism is essential for the world of visions and ideas. 'Waking with hope in our hearts fuels the actions that make things happen,' says Kennett. But the right path is a balance between the two. 'Pessimism and optimism are on a continuum. At one end is Pollyanna and the other is a depressive cynic, who kills enthusiasm Realistic optimism tends to characterise the most successful people: hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.'

Henry Engelhardt, CEO of Admiral Insurance Group, says his optimism is balanced by the pessimism of his business partner David Stevens. 'He's always looking for the risk and the possible downsides, and I'm the one playing up the possible good outcomes. That's an excellent balance to have.'

Here, MT speaks to two more optimists and a pessimist about their life philosophy and asks: which is it better to be? 'The world was built by risk-takers who didn't let the precautionary principle keep in bed because the ceiling might fall in,' says Johnson. 'No pessimist has ever sorted out the wide-reaching problems of a country or a socity.' Who will rescue us this time around - the glass-half-full types or their opposites?


'An optimist takes a fundamentally positive view of the world and has an in-built instinct that human ingenuity will always overcome whatever obstacle is thrown in its path, so my philosophy is one of confidence in the future.

Personal experience shows me that the optimists are always the winners, because if you believe in the worst then the best that can happen is you're proved right. If you believe in a better future and you bet on that, then if you're right, you win, and if you're wrong, you're no worse off than if you're a pessimist. Maybe I've lived a lucky life, so that's the grounds for my sense of optimism; but most of the research shows that your sense of optimism or pessimism is endogenous.

Humans are the only animals that realise they are mortal and this is a tough piece of intellectual information to grapple with. The idea that you will not endure means you have to make the most of the time you're here. That in turn means not burying yourself in fears but working in the belief that you will be able to create, invent and improve. There are always doomsayers and any number of apocalyptic visions, but for most of us, the worst never happens. …

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