by Meridith Levinson

In Praise of Pessimism: When a Positive Attitude Hinders Your Career

Mar 10, 2010

Looking on the bright side about a dead-end job can kill your drive to find a new one.

Life and career coaches are relentless advocates for positive thinking. They maintain that people who are optimistic and think positively open themselves to more opportunities in life, and thus, are more successful than pessimists. (Of course, who in their right mind would pay a life coach or career coach to tell them to be more negative?)

A 2009 study from the University of Missouri confirms career and life coaches’ firmly held beliefs about the power of positive thinking in a job search: The study found that maintaining a positive attitude, along with adhering to a well-organized job search plan, leads job seekers to land new jobs faster.

The research findings make sense: People are attracted to positive individuals and put off by negative individuals (unless they’re funny or good-looking). Managers want to hire workers who are upbeat, not downers. Asking yourself, “Why not?” when you’re faced with a difficult choice may lead to a better outcome than dismissing that choice by saying, as the pessimist typically would, “Why bother?”

I wonder, however, if positive thinking ever limits our careers. For example, if you’re in a dead-end job, will a positive attitude toward it help you find something new, or will it kill your ambition and lead you to become complacent? Put another way, if you begin looking on the bright side about an unsatisfying job (e.g., “a bad job is better than no job,” or “at least I have health insurance,” or “a pay cut is better than no paycheck”), do you risk resigning yourself to a bad position and losing your motivation to make a career change that may ultimately be better for you emotionally and financially?

Negative emotions can be equally powerful drivers of career change as positive emotions. We just need to know how these emotions can help us and when to put them to use. We should use whatever negativity we feel toward our employment situation (whether employed or unemployed) to change it for the better. I think it’s possible to be negative (“I hate my job”) and positive (“I will find a new one”) at the same time.

In other words, we shouldn’t try to completely banish negative, pessimistic thinking from our minds.

Do you think trying to see the positive in everything can kill your mojo and lead to complacency? How have you converted negative energy into something good in your career? (For the record, I like my job.)