Are You Optimistic, Pessimistic, or Realistic? And How That Impacts Your Business

We’ve all been asked the glass half empty or half full question… It’s easy to give this discussion more importance than it deserves, or even make it more complicated than it really is. The bottom line is that the question aims to determine whether someone is an optimist or a pessimist. But, what this question fails to consider is whether someone is a realist. I know people who are optimist realists and some who are pessimistic realists. Both can be effective; it’s simply a matter of approach. The commonality, though, lies in the fact that they look at things from a realistic and, often, analytic lens. And that is why they get results.

An optimist says "The glass is half full."  A Pessimist says "The glass is half empty."  A Realist says "Yep, that's a glass alright!"

Take poker, for example. Professional betters fold about 75% of the time after seeing the first two cards. Amateurs only fold 50% of the time. This has nothing to do with whether they were optimistic or pessimistic about their chances. It has to do with understanding the game and considering statistics from a strategic perspective.  

The stock market is another example where assumptions and “opinions” can be dangerous. How many stocks like WeWork, Peloton, Teladoc, and Zoom all grew based on unrealistic expectations and then crashed? In 2021, nearly every new issue is down an average of more than 50%.

Furthermore, analysis and AI are valuable and often help improve results, but we have to also consider the accuracy and validity of the analysis. For example, the pandemic has made much of the data from 2019-2021 less reliable in forecasting. Economic, political, and environmental changes can impact the assumptions and process of our analysis. Case in point: higher winds and higher water temperatures from climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Ian. Structural changes, like the war in Ukraine, crime, and inflation, can also affect our assumptions and analysis.

Comic with a person asking a librarian "Can you recommend a book optimistic about the future that isn't in the fiction section?"

Timing and circumstances should also greatly influence our perceptions and predictions. While we may understand product life cycles, we often forget how age, competition, and technology can affect our progress. For example, over 60% of advertising is over the Internet rather than traditional media. And many politicians and managers continue to serve despite waning capabilities and energy.

In general, being optimistic is frequently recommended to keep a positive attitude, understand potential, and motivate maximum efforts. And, while many issues require evaluation, there are plenty of opportunities to capitalize on optimism. The pandemic has stimulated new opportunities like working from home and virtual learning that need to be given time to reach their potential. For example, small Universities are sharing courses with other local Universities to expand the offerings available to students. These need more analysis and objective thought rather than simple opinions to have success—this is where that realism comes back in play. It’s great to be excited about good ideas, but we also need to take a realistic look at whether they are effective.

And, when it comes to decision-making and implementing new ideas, we can all afford more risk. People tend to have a pessimistic view of risk-taking. Or, they believe you need to be optimistic to benefit from risk. But, it’s really more about being realistic and evaluating results and considering alternatives. We need to recognize that the upside of many risks is much greater than the limited downside. Additionally, need to understand outcomes and accept reality. Part of that reality is that failure is always part of the process.


Other culprits that pull us away from reality include denial and bias. Denial can make us avoid potential negative outcomes or ignore facts. Bias causes us to overestimate markets, ignore competition, and not consider the issues in execution. These can be a result of our enthusiasm—we want to believe something is true because we are excited about the possibilities. This is a great example of how unchecked optimism can actually thwart our efforts.

So, how can we make sure we maintain a realistic outlook and approach?

  • Encourage openness. Organizations need to be open to measurement and feedback. Share financials, operations reports, and sales reports. More eyes equal more feedback. This can reduce oversight and bias.
  • Search alternatives. Don’t get stuck doing it one way. Try new things and see if you can do it ever better.
  • Discourage enablers. While experience and expertise can improve results, one of the worst strategies in our changing environment is “we have always done it this way.” It simply ignores change, alternatives, and processes. This mindset is frequently fueled by proponents who fear change and discomfort. Don’t allow people to enable this narrow-minded thinking. It’s not inclusive and not realistic.
  • Measure correctly. Are you in need of quantitative or qualitative measurements? On one hand, quantitative measures are simpler to document, measurable, objective, and comparable. However, we must ensure we are using the right measurements and analyzing correctly. Qualitative data can measure issues we don’t always consider and allow for intuition. However, qualitative can also be easily compromised and measure wrong factors.

In the end, whether the glass is half empty or half full doesn’t really matter as long as we can see that the glass exists and that there is more than one way to interpret how much water it holds. People will always see things differently—our education, experience, genetics, history, circumstances, and a variety of other factors influence how we view the world. Rather than arguing about the differences in our perceptions, perhaps we can discuss them and learn from each other. Together, we can expand our collective knowledge by considering the potential and opportunity that exists in our unique interpretations of data and circumstances. And with a realistic approach to analysis, and a genuine desire to pursue new, improved, and varying outcomes, we can achieve more together.

Related: Are We Dominated by Negatives?