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Pessimism: Is That The Answer?

"What we need is to re-set our view of the things to be optimistic about – to confront the fact that material wealth cannot any longer be our motivator."


by Professor Tim Cummins, founder and President of the International Association for Contract & Commercial Management (IACCM)

Last year, ‘optimism’ was a major theme at every IACCM event. We even conducted research that revealed the optimistic nature of the commercial management community – though it discovered that optimistic behavior does not extend to the workplace. When we are on the job, we see our role as ‘preventist’ – that is, protecting the organization from ill-considered or over-optimistic actions.

A dose of pessimism

An article in the RSA Journal suggests that many of the world’s problems are the result of too much optimism and that a strong dose of pessimism would be a good thing. Author and Economist Rodrigo Aguilera challenges the statistics behind the view that the world overall ‘has never had things better’. He suggests that this is a message promoted by those who see success purely in economic terms, of ever-growing material wealth.

The rich are to blame

There are indeed many reasons to challenge that measure of success. Indeed, a study released by the University of Leeds suggests that human survival depends on our acceptance of the need to change our attitudes and values. Wealth in itself, especially at the individual level, is not a good indicator of happiness or well-being. More to the point, the research reveals how personal wealth is directly connected to the destruction of our planet.

Yet a strong dose of pessimism scarcely seems likely to resolve the situation. Surely the issue is that we associate reasons for optimism with the wrong things. That is why pressing challenges such as the environment or social exclusion are relegated to a conceptual wish list, not motivational aspirations. What we need is to re-set our view of the things to be optimistic about – to confront the fact that material wealth cannot any longer be our motivator.

A change in values

So what should excite us? Perhaps coronavirus will be the catalyst for a new approach and set of values – a renewed focus on community, on taking pleasure from family and friends, on contentment with what we have, rather than constant demands for more.

Such a change would also fundamentally alter business strategies and behavior. Without the pressure for growth and ever greater share value and dividends, corporations could focus efforts far more on ethical and social values. Today, these ideas remain a relative whisper, but I have the feeling that it won’t be long before they become a roar. ‘Preventism’ will then take on a new role and meaning – a shift towards policies and practices that protect our environmental assets, rather than corporate assets and material wealth.


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