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On the Prudence of Pessimism

I am in beautiful Detroit, MI, sitting at the gate in the airport, having missed my flight by about 10 minutes. The next flight is in 5 hours. Nevertheless, I feel fortunate. No, I don’t need to have my head examined. I am fortunate indeed to have a confirmed seat on the next flight, which is not just full but oversold. My fellow travelers who missed the same connection were not so fortunate–they may have to spend the night here or fly to a “nearby” airport a 5-6 hours drive away from their final destination.

How did I luck out like that? I am a pessimist by nature, and always prepare for the worst possible outcome. When I was waiting to board my first flight this morning, a cheerful announcement notified me that the flight would be slightly delayed. “We have a minor maintenance issue, but should be out of here in 30 minutes. Please ask the agent to rebook your connecting flight only if your layover is less than 30 minutes.” Well, my layover was longer than one hour and thirty minutes, but nevertheless I immediately proceeded to rebook my connecting flight. “But sir, you should be able to make your flight comfortably–we are expected to be only 30 minutes late.” “Lady, just please rebook me for a later flight just in case. If I make my original flight, I just won’t use that ticket.” Lo and behold, the 30 minutes delay turned into an hour and forty minutes delay. If the next flight were delayed by as little as 10 minutes, I would have probably made it. Now I have a pleasant 5 hour wait in the airport, but as it turned out, I am the fortunate holder of the last seat on the next and last flight of the day.

This realization makes the wait sweeter. It also makes me ponder about the value of pessimism. Not getting back home today would have been disastrous for me. I not only have to teach tomorrow early afternoon, but a senior colleague is scheduled to come by my class to conduct a peer teaching evaluation, crucial for my tenure application. Yes, I will be very tired when I get home, but nothing that a good night sleep would not cure. Well, I would have to break my promise to grade that assignment by tomorrow; Sorry, folks!–I hope you understand.

Is preparing for the worst possible outcome always prudent? Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, claims that “We all agree that pessimism is a mark of superior intellect.” I don’t know about superior intellect, but this strategy has worked for me well in different settings. For example, whenever I submit a manuscript for review, I immediately start making back up plans for the case if the paper gets rejected. I don’t just make abstract plans, but I usually ask a student co-author to reformat the paper for the next submission target. I don’t just want to be prepared for the possibility of rejection psychologically, I want to know what kind of editing I would have to do to resubmit the paper. If the next publication venue has a smaller page limit, I want to know exactly how many pages we should be prepared to cut. If the opposite is the case, I want to plan what new material we can include to strengthen the paper.  What if your paper is accepted for publication right away? Well, I’d be pleasantly surprised. But what about all the work you have done to shorten or lengthen the paper? This work will never go to waste. Whenever reporting on a research project, I have always found myself needing to write about it in different forms: short, long, and everything in between. These shortened or lengthened manuscripts will serve as building blocks for future publications on the same topic.

Well, it looks like I am going to be able to squeeze in some grading after all. Nothing shortens a wait so productively as grading assignments. Thanks to cloud-base course management systems and 3G tethering, nowadays one can be productive almost everywhere.

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