The Pessimist’s Guide to Things That Will Never Work

tired young businessman

This is the first in a three-part series on attitudes toward work, specifically for people in publishing.

Today, I am writing about pessimism.  If there were a book glorifying its virtues, it would be the title above.  It would be a thousand pages long with an updated and expanded edition published annually.

Full disclosure…I became a baseball fan of the Chicago Cubs in 1966, a year when they lost a team record 103 games.  Their last World Series Championship? Just five short years after Orville and Wilbur Wright flew twelve seconds in a powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, NC in 1903.  A long time ago.

Trust me, I understood pessimism from a young age. 

I define pessimism as a defense mechanism for anyone who wants to avoid disappointment. Pessimists expect to lose a coin flip even though there is just as good a chance they could win.

Back to the Cubs, the late Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko once wrote, “An optimist looks at a glass of water and sees it as half full. A pessimist looks at the same glass and sees it as half empty. A Cubs fan looks at it and says, ‘When’s it gonna spill?'”

There are good reasons to be a pessimist, especially for authors. The odds are stacked against both the new author and previously published author.  Considering all the people who want to write a book in the world, you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than publishing a best-seller that makes enough money so you can quit your day job.

There are even some pessimists at publishers, because even after deciding to publish a book, the chances are about 50/50 that it will never earn back the advance paid to the author. 

The most interesting aspect of this is that while eternal optimists are considered unrealistic, pessimists are often considered wise, when really they have simple 20/20 hindsight mistaken for wise foresight.  You know them.  The “I knew it wouldn’t work” crowd.

Publishing is a tough business, but if it were easy, everyone would be doing it and making lots of money.

The great science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein said it best,  “Don’t ever become a pessimist…a pessimist is correct oftener than an optimist, but an optimist has more fun, and neither can stop the march of events.”

It is pretty simple.  Choose this day your attitude.  Optimism is just a lot more enjoyable!

12 Responses to The Pessimist’s Guide to Things That Will Never Work

  1. Avatar
    Thomas Allbaugh March 4, 2014 at 7:12 am #

    Thank you, Dan. Is it possible that being pessimistic about a project can prevent you from ever doing it in the first place? Or can ignoring your realistic understanding of the odds against you undermine the work you are doing? I still plunge ahead, sometimes feeling that my hope is illusory, but I do it anyway, and I sometimes think that being more hopeful would make my work go better than it does.

    And I respect all of my friends who are Cub fans. After all this, you’ve stayed fans. Maybe you can teach the church something about hope, if not optimism.

    • Avatar
      J.D. Maloy March 4, 2014 at 11:52 am #

      Thomas, you made me laugh. Die-hard team fans are truly the best examples of hope. Next year is our year, I just believe it will be! Hope is never illusory! When Christ-centered, it’s the best motivation.

      Cristine, I agree. How could one get through life with a sense of humor? Sheesh. Dan and Thomas made me think of my friends who are crazy devoted to their sport teams, and I’m giggling at how ridiculously deep it runs. Maybe there is a lesson there?

  2. Avatar
    Sandy March 4, 2014 at 8:16 am #

    Guilty! I just told my husband yesterday: “It feels like this book is never going to be published.” Sometimes pessimism is the downward slide from optimism. After reading your post, I’m crawling my way back up that gnarly, splintered, ugly slide.

  3. Avatar
    Jeanne Takenaka March 4, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    Good thoughts, Dan. I live with a pessimist, who’s nine years old. It’s hard to get him to see things from the opposite side of the fence, so to speak. But, seeing that quality in him mirrors it in myself from time to time.

    I like the idea of being a realist with an optimistic bent. I know the facts about publishing, but I still press forward, with the hope that in God’s timing, my book may be published. I can know the facts but still work with hope that the optimistic view will become reality. Right? 🙂

  4. Avatar
    Cristine Eastin March 4, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    Yep, without a sense of humor, life just aint’ no fun. I’m not published yet, but not out for the count either. It is nice that we at least have Amazon ebooks to fall back to (for now). So, as I continue to try and find a home for my debut novel, I’ve also moved on to Novel #2, and I’m having a blast again. I guess it’s optimistic to do what I enjoy doing. I am pessimistic about the publishing industry, but the Lord didn’t give me the charge to fix that. (But I hope somebody does.)

  5. Avatar
    Jennifer Dyer March 4, 2014 at 10:13 am #

    I love your definition: “I define pessimism as a defense mechanism for anyone who wants to avoid disappointment.” So true.
    Thanks for the uplifting words. Optimism is more fun, and no matter what happens, we can be optimistic about eternity, right? Even when things don’t go the way we want here on earth, we always have hope in our Lord.

  6. Avatar
    J.D. Maloy March 4, 2014 at 11:43 am #

    Dan, this is one of my favorite posts of yours. Funny and truthful in a light-hearted way that left me, and every other person who commented, hopeful. Your flipping of a coin was a great example that made me feel sorry for pessimistics. And your statistic of getting hit by lighting vs. quitting one’s day job, had me shouting ‘bring the challenge on!’ I don’t make much money at my day job and wouldn’t need to be a best-seller to do so. Well done and thank you!

  7. Avatar
    Ron Estrada March 4, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    Nice post, Dan. I like to think of pessemists as miserably correct. It’s a wonderful reason to give up and enjoy the easy life. But it is the poor, stubborn optimist who seems to enjoy life, difficult as it may be. I could be quite confortable finishing out my engineering career and catching up on sitcoms, but it is the doing that gives me joy. Success, however defined, is merely a step to the next goal. Eventuallly, we’ll all create a goal that we can never reach. But if we simply sat upon our last success, we’d be miserable. Perhaps rich, but miserable.

  8. Avatar
    Beth Durham March 4, 2014 at 7:24 pm #

    Is there room in here for REALISM??? I say plan for the best, prepare for the worst.

    I’m always making plans B, C, D, E… I live with an eternal optimist and he’s branded me the world’s worst pessimist. But when it rains, I’m the one with the umbrella; when it snows, I have my gloves. And when that stellar publishing contract comes through – I have a plan for that too!

    Thanks for the post Dan. I can’t wait to see parts 2 and 3.

  9. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan March 6, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    When it comes to writing and publishing my work, it seems I get pessimistic about once a week. Fortunately, I feel pretty good about things the rest of the time!

    (I can’t wait for parts two and three!)


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