The Positive Side of a Negative Outlook: How Embracing Your Natural Pessimism Can Work to Your Advantage in Law School

The Positive Side of a Negative Outlook: How Embracing Your Natural Pessimism Can Work to Your Advantage in Law SchoolPlease welcome back Jennifer Warren, attorney and Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law, to discuss how being a pessimist might not be such a bad thing.

I sometimes describe myself as a “glass half empty” type of person. I tend to be a little on the cynical side and generally assume the worst will happen. This sort of innate pessimism is often seen as a character flaw – something that should be stamped out with positive affirmations and an attitude adjustment – but I’ve often felt that my skeptical outlook can actually be beneficial in certain situations. As it turns out, there’s plenty of research showing that negativity does, indeed, have some positives.

Sara Elizabeth Adler’s recent article in The Atlantic, The Power of Negative Thinking, described some of the studies showing that those with a glass half empty attitude sometimes fare better than the optimists. From relationships to earning potential to health, it seems that pessimists can (at least occasionally) come out on top. If a pessimistic disposition can be harnessed to achieve positive results in these areas, why not law school as well? Sure, part of achieving success in law school is identifying your weaknesses and implementing strategies to compensate for them, but finding ways to take advantage of your innate habits and temperament is just as crucial. So, if you tend to be more of a glass half empty type of person like me, you will want to find ways to make this trait work to your advantage in law school. Here are 3 ways that embracing your pessimism may actually benefit you during your law school journey:

1. Pessimism Can Help You Manage Expectations

I’m a sports fan, and I always say that being able to enjoy watching your favorite team is all about expectations management. If you’re overconfident and assume your team will win the big game, a victory can seem anticlimactic whereas an unexpected defeat will ruin your whole day (or week!). But, if you expect a tough game and maybe even anticipate a loss, you’ll be less disappointed by a bad result and overjoyed by a win. This sort of expectations management can also serve you well in academic settings.

Even an optimist would probably agree that in law school, as in life, you are going to face disappointments. There will be times when things just don’t work out the way you expected, whether it be grades, rankings, career goals, making law review, or anything else. But if you’ve managed your expectations appropriately, these disappointments won’t be a crushing blow. By managing expectations, a pessimist is better equipped to handle a perceived failure because they have already anticipated the possibility and (hopefully) formulated a plan to respond.

Adler’s article cites to a study showing that students who overestimated their grades on a test were more upset than those that had underestimated their grades. Thus, much like cheering for your favorite team, if you reign in your expectations you’re less likely to be shocked by a bad result and also more likely to find yourself pleasantly surprised by an overachievement. Of course you don’t want to set your expectations so low that you don’t pursue opportunities or challenge yourself, and you don’t want to be so pessimistic that you can’t see a way forward if things don’t work out. Keep in mind that while planning for the worst may be beneficial in some ways, there are also times when you need to hope for the best.

2. Pessimism May Scare You into Studying More

When it comes to studying, I’m a firm believer that a healthy dose of skepticism about your own talents will serve you well. When I was in law school, I never assumed that I could cut corners during the preparation process. I firmly believed that I had to thoroughly study for each class in order to do well. Rather than drag me down, this skepticism about my own abilities actually spurred me to work harder and study more than I might have otherwise.

What I was practicing was a sort of “defensive pessimism,” where I was using my anxiety in a positive, motivating way to help me prepare more thoroughly for exams. As Adler points out, research shows that this sort of defensive pessimism can actually optimize performance in various situations. Now, don’t misunderstand me, it’s essential that you find healthy ways to manage anxiety in law school, but sometimes a little skepticism about how well you’ll execute a task can be a good thing. While the overconfident optimist may not see the need to study, the more pessimistic student may be motivated to consistently and thoroughly prepare because they see it as the only way to achieve their goal. The key is to maintain your self-belief while never feeling that you can just rest on your laurels.

3. Pessimism May Help Your Appreciate Your Opportunities

An optimist who assumes things will eventually work out may take it for granted when they actually do. But a pessimist, who is anticipating that they won’t be picked for the moot court team, or the law review board, or the unpaid internship, may be more grateful when they are given the opportunity. Appreciating these opportunities will hopefully motivate you to work harder, which will lead to more opportunities down the road. A pessimistic outlook may also compel you to take advantage of each and every job opportunity that presents itself, since you’re not likely to assume that something better will come along. Although there are times when a job may not be right for you, in the tough legal job market, there’s also value in having a willingness to gain experience wherever you can.

Find a Balance

Don’t despair pessimists – your negative outlook can be a positive! However, there are also situations where you’ll need to garner some optimism. Be willing to use your natural negativity when it serves you, but don’t hesitate to discard it when necessary. You never want a pessimistic attitude to prevent you from pursuing opportunities or maintaining a healthy mental state. Try to find a balance, and don’t be afraid to embrace optimism, positivity, and confidence when you need it!

For more helpful advice, check out these articles:


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About Jennifer Warren

Jennifer received her B.A. in Politics cum laude from New York University and her J.D. with highest distinction from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She has several years of experience in the areas of juvenile law and civil litigation and is the Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law.

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