If I read another Facebook post where someone describes themselves as a “realist” I might start pulling out my beard hair, which would really hurt. We live in a cosmopolitan society where lots of different people and opinions bump into one another. Most of us feel the need to try and convince others (and ourselves) of the validity of our actions and ideas; we continuously justify ourselves because there are so many different ways of doing and thinking.

Some people are more genuine and knowledgeable than others and many ideas that look good on the surface are simply opinions expressed in an aggressive, repetitive, loud, and in-your-face manner. These tactics try to invoke emotional reactions and are usually a sign of underdeveloped arguments. There is an important difference between opinions and arguments. Arguments have a claim (what you want your audience to believe) and evidence (supporting examples, statistics, stories, testimony) to logically bolster the claim. Opinions are merely a series of claims presented one after the other; they lack evidence. So when I read Facebook posts, listen to professional conversations when consulting, or accidentally watch what passes for news and see people describing themselves as “realists,” what they are actually doing is using a rhetorical strategy to get others to accept their understanding of a particular situation. Instead of focusing on labels and categories, why don’t realists and relativists alike focus more on finding other curious people to exchange ideas with?

Although self-labeling your ideas as “more real” than others is a thinly veiled strategy to gain support, realists do seek out interesting conversations and try to stay informed of events that effect their communities and countries. Realists also apply a healthy amount of skepticism when authorities offer explanations for events. They usually don’t accept reality, or explanations of it, at face value. Practicing a healthy amount of skepticism, without falling into the philosophical trap of questioning everything all the time (we don’t have time to do this…we all end up dead), allows for a more thorough, rigorous, and systematic understanding of the world. In other words, practical skepticism can lead to knowledge…realists know this and use it to their advantage.

Another positive trait of “self-described realists” is that they are willing to analyze facts. What they often fail to do, however, is point out other facts and ideas that undermine the ‘real’ in their reality. This is a form of confirmation bias, and although we all exhibit this tendency when defending ideas and arguments, the most deliberative and reflective thinkers admit when their arguments are inadequate and incomplete because they are focused on learning and accumulating knowledge, not maintaining a reputation. Realists do not exhibit this quality because it destroys the essence of their argument, the fact that it is not “real” or correct.

It also bothers me when I hear people say, “I am not a pessimist, I am just a realist.” The problem is that people oversimplify pessimism and optimism and miss out on why these terms are actually problematic mentalities. Each of these terms operates on two distinct levels, so let’s try to understand where self-described optimists and pessimists go wrong.

Level One: Assumptions
When people call themselves a pessimist or an optimist, this means that the individual either assumes that in any given situation either the worst solution will always occur or that the most pleasant/effective solution will occur. Adopting either of these polar opposite attitudes will effect someone’s relationships, beliefs, and psyche. If you are a true pessimist, you operate under the assumption that if things can go wrong they will. You love Murphy’s Law. Whereas if you are an optimist you assume that things will always work themselves out for the best. You own rose-colored Ray Bans.

Level Two: Confirmation Bias
Once people assume that either the best or worst option will always emerge in a given situation, they begin to exhibit another trait that leads to inaccurate thinking. These people then constantly search for examples to fulfill their optimistic or pessimistic worldviews. Each time they discover evidence that “fits” their preconceived attitude, they share this information in an attempt to paint a “realistic” version of facts, behaviors, events, and interactions in order to convince others of the soundness of their arguments. This is a vicious, iterative cycle that reinforces itself each time new “evidence” is found to support the initial assumptions. It goes like this:

  • Assume things will go right/wrong
  • Seek out examples to affirm the assumption
  • Communicate the “evidence” to others
  • Reinforce your initial beliefs

This slippery slope is not solid ground for logical and persuasive arguments. But if I had to advise people to adopt one attitude over the other, I would say think optimistically. Pessimists are really good at pointing out problems, but they don’t usually discuss ways to solve the problems. They come off as complainers and nay-sayers, and they aren’t always pleasant to be around. Optimists, on the other hand, may romanticize world events and interactions, but they are the ones who change the world. Technological, organizational, medical, and engineering innovations come from optimists, people who look at the world and see that more is possible. Optimists know that we aren’t running out of resources, because the greatest resource of all is the human brain. We just need to figure out how to do more with less in this world, and optimists know that it is possible.

Now this is easy advice to give but harder to follow. I am fairly pessimistic in my personal life and I struggle to think more positively. When I am in professional settings, however, I am always optimistic that individuals, organizations, and institutions can improve their communication and conflict management patterns.  I want to be a productive agent of organizational change and that can only occur if I am Professionally Optimistic. So at this point in my life, I have accepted that I am a Professional Optimist and a Personal Pessimist. Because we can never escape the beautiful simplicity of Maslow’s description of human motives and needs, I will constantly be striving to overcome my personal pessimism and replace it with an optimistic attitude infused with a healthy dose of skepticism.

So the next time you want to call yourself a realist, an optimist, or a pessimist, think about what you are trying to accomplish by using that self-label and seek out an interesting conversation, debate, or dialogue instead. Practice a balanced amount of Practical Skepticism to explore and explain your ideas instead of using worn out persuasive strategies to convince others of the merits of your ideas, like calling yourself a realist.