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The analogy “the glass is half empty or half full” is commonly used to differentiate between an optimist and a pessimist. However, there is much more to this concept than ones mindset or point of view.

We begin by understanding the difference between these two thinking patterns as well as what causes them. We are not born either optimistic or pessimistic but learn a certain thinking pattern through our environment. By the age of eight children have learned their explanatory thinking style which is the style they use to understand the world and people. The mother, as the primary caregiver, has a large influence on the child in the way she absorbs and relates to the world rubs off on the child. Later, school teachers influence the child’s thinking pattern. A child subconsciously absorbs a thinking pattern and if this pattern is not verified in adulthood for its value and benefits then the acquired style might stay with them for life.

We are getting ahead of ourselves! Let’s first clarify the different thinking styles.

Defining characteristics of a pessimist are that they believe bad events will last a very long time, even up to an entire life time. Everything they attempt or try to do is futile. This results in pessimists giving up quicker or perhaps not even bothering to try. Science has proven that lasting pessimism leads to depression and anxiety.

In contrast, optimists are confronted with equal life adversity and misfortune. They however view these as temporary setbacks. Optimists have an abundance of perseverance which results in them being prone to greater success, performance, aging and health.

The important point is that both styles are habits relating to how we think and view the world. Habits can be changed and so can our thinking pattern. A pessimist can learn to be more optimistic by learning to dispute their negative thinking pattern.

That all being said, pessimists have one fundamental advantage over optimists. They are absolute realists in all life situations, which means that they can interpret and assess a positive as well as a negative situation with equal accuracy. Optimists overestimate their level of control over life events, especially in situations where they are helpless and have no control at all. Their view of failure and success is slightly lopsided as failure is regarded as temporary, passing and caused by external factors. Comparatively, success is seen as permanent and self-created. A pessimist sees success and failure caused by the exact same factors.

Looking at both thinking styles we can see that there is a time and a place for both. Now let’s put this concept into the workplace. Certain work responsibilities require us to be extremely realistic about risk and safety. Careers have been identified which require a certain primary thinking style. Careers in which a pessimist will thrive in are engineering, technical and cost estimators, contract negotiators, financial controllers and accountants, statisticians, technical writers or business administrators. These are all careers that require caution, risk assessment and specific technical skills.

Optimists enjoy initiative, persistence and dreaming of a brighter future. Careers in which optimists excel in are sales positions, brokering, public relations, presenting, teaching, training, acting, creative jobs, and highly competitive and high-burnout jobs.

It makes one wonder if ones employees are in the right job based on their habitual thinking style? Also, it might explain why certain people might be succeeding when others fail in the same job role. By way of an example, a sales person has to be high on optimism because that gives them the edge to succeed. The question is: do we ever test this in our recruitment process?