The Far Side of Personality

I didn’t read much of the newspaper growing up, although I did read some. Every morning, when The Plain Dealer arrived on our doorstep, I went straight to two places: the sports section and Gary Larson’s The Far Side comic strip. Cows, the Chicken of Depression, and poor Thag. Although I enjoyed them all, one of Larson’s cartoons really stuck out to me.

Designed in the traditional one-panel format, this 1990 comic was divided into four parts, with four independent drawings of a person staring at a glass of water sitting on a table. The top left is a woman excitedly saying, “The glass is half full.” The top right is a depressed man lamenting, “The glass is half empty.” Bottom left, an indecisive man questions, “Half full … No! Wait! Half empty! … No, half … What was the question?” The bottom right is an angry man yelling, “Hey! I ordered a cheeseburger!” And with that, Larson simplified the four categories in which many view the world.

We all try to mentally reside in a healthy balance between those four quadrants, which is a good thing. Too much of something can be just that, too much. Even something as amazing as ranch dressing becomes unhealthy if you start chugging it from the bottle (as I must frequently remind my middle child). Many disruptive issues in our personal or professional lives actualize when we decide to pitch a tent and stay too long in one of these four corners: overly optimistic, perpetual pessimist, incessant indecisive, or I ORDERED A CHEESEBURGER unfulfilled.

OVERLY OPTIMISTIC

Healthy optimism is a great thing. Optimists generally are happier in life. They stay in a more positive mood, have higher self-esteem, and enjoy overall better health and coping mechanisms. But not all is as awesome as it seems. They traditionally struggle with deadlines due to underestimating time restraints, make riskier decisions often with complete disregard for budgets, and unintentionally weaken friendships due to feelings of disillusionment.

In the best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman rationalizes that optimists push possible adverse outcomes under the rug to create an illusion of control in their mind. This is sort of like when a business owner says to themselves, “I’ve been successfully growing my water division for years, but I’m going to shut it down and get into Chinese drywall instead.” An eternal optimist can justify that.

Being overly positive is irresponsible, but the solution isn’t to become Eeyore overnight. It’s to recognize when you have been wearing rose-colored glasses for too long and the need to make slight adjustments. If you struggle with too much optimism, remind yourself to occasionally practice pessimism, as crazy as that sounds. Ask others if your expectations are too high, and if need be, lower them. The easiest way for an overly optimistic person to balance out is to create and follow a strategic plan that others have helped build. The optimist can still drive the actions forward and will do a great job! But the strategic plan installs a governor to ensure that speed, decisions, and budget all remain under control.

PERPETUAL PESSIMIST

The last few years have given countless reasons for pessimists to have their day. Global pandemics and shutdowns, labor shortages, and for us lifelong Cleveland Browns fans—football Sundays that are so painful week after week. Pessimists have the viewpoint that bad things always happen to them because they are predetermined. Not only do bad things happen, but they will be permanent and are usually their own fault. This leads pessimists to be quicker to give up on initiatives and goals or not even to start them at all.

Healthy pessimism is realistic and wise. It’s the part of me that says I am over 40, not in great shape and can’t make a free throw, so I shouldn’t try out for USA Basketball. But those that can only focus on the negative, no matter the cause, are forcing self-induced carnage in their personal and professional lives. It makes sense to not do something every day that causes harm, but just like those with unhealthy addictions, perpetual pessimists know what they are doing and struggle just as hard to correct themselves. They are also aware that their pessimism reduces their self-confidence, causing a downward spiral and making them less likely to be promoted or to start their own business.

The human mind creates pessimism as a defense mechanism, giving one “thicker skin.” It’s built into our fight or flight cognitive process. And like the overly optimistic, it can ruin relationships. We all remember the Saturday Night Live Debbie Downer skits. Severe pessimism can negatively affect mental and physical health. Pessimists are less likely to diet, exercise, or see a doctor. They are also more likely to smoke.

If you are struggling to control pessimism, it’s important to write down what happens after you have a negative experience. Separate your beliefs from your feelings. Understand that your feelings will be negative and that’s ok. We think feelings can be wrong, but they are not. How you feel is how you feel. Focus on your beliefs and how you perceived what was going to happen versus what really happened. Can you identify any patterns? Review how you interpreted those negative feelings.

Research shows it’s your interpretation of your feelings that matters most. Determine if the situation was as bad or as permanent as you interpreted it in the beginning. Then write down how you can interpret your feelings in a healthier fashion the next time.

INCESSANT INDECISIVE

I believe there is one question that has led to more divorces than all the rest put together. It’s not, “Who’s number is this on your phone?” or “Why is the bank account empty?” or “Where did all these dogs come from, dear?” It’s, “What do you want for dinner?” Across the globe, there is no question asked more often or that leads to more frustration. It’s a simple question we all struggle with. Everyone has a deer-in-the-headlights moment when needing to decide between Chili’s and Applebee’s.

For some people, it’s much worse. They struggle excessively with all decisions. “Do I move forward with the project?” “When do I hire another salesperson?” “Should I swipe right or left?” Their constant struggle over everything causes real pain. As entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn said, “Indecision is the greatest thief of opportunity.”

People who are exceedingly indecisive tend to believe there are too many options, may be overly concerned with pleasing others, or haven’t spent the time truly figuring out what matters most to them. Research shows much of this is behavior we learned as we grew up. We may have been asked a seemingly innocent question like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We proudly announced, “A rodeo astronaut or a disaster restoration business owner” and were mocked for being ridiculous by someone who had a major influence over us. At that point, decisions (and publicly announcing them) became painful. If this feels familiar, spend some time focusing on you. Identify what you like and what makes you happy. Create your core values and use them as guiding lights. It’s important not to believe what makes you happy just because someone told you it did years ago. Research other viewpoints. Turn on a different news channel. Challenge what you think you know. Allow personal growth and curiosity to prevail.

Some strategies that may help you overcome incessant indecisiveness include:

  • intentionally limiting options,

  • listing pros and cons,

  • not focusing on the worst possible outcomes,

  • making small decisions first, when you can,

  • avoiding perfectionism.

The bigger challenge is when indecisiveness results from anxiety. Although indecision is the mind’s way of avoiding anxiety, it can amplify it instead. Decisions are made in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience (2016) shows anxiety decreases activity in the part of the brain affecting the decision-making process, which then causes more anxiety. This can also have the opposite effect, where high-anxiety people make quick, uninformed, and incorrect decisions to avoid indecisiveness, with harmful results. If you are suffering from severe anxiety, it is important that you seek advice from a medical expert. Anxiety issues are growing exponentially, but many healthy options are available.

I ORDERED A CHEESEBURGER UNFULFILLED

For some, life is never good enough, no matter what happens; there is always more and better. At Violand, we have a technical term for these people—we call them business owners. These are people who tend to be scattered and stressed. They have something in place that works and suddenly fall victim to an incessant need to tear apart whatever that is and start over, because they think they wanted a different outcome. This often happens after attending an industry convention where they heard about a guy 1,000 miles away who did something, and they now feel that’s what they have always wanted. You may have an expensive piece of machinery rusting in the back that demonstrates this. Striving for growth is great. Becoming obsessed with what you don’t have, regardless of what you do have, is something else entirely.

Unfulfilled people often suffer from a lack of purpose or not knowing what they want. They base their decisions on how they feel that day or what they think they are missing out on, instead of a defined mission. They may be unappreciative of what they have and of who has helped them get to where they are. A common symptom of being unfulfilled is the inability to ever finish anything because they have already moved onto something new, something they now believe is what will really make them happy. Many times, this causes them to live beyond their means.

Those who are unfulfilled don’t realize the pain they inflict on themselves or others. If you or someone you know is struggling with this, spend time remembering that the value is in the journey, not the result. Identify what you really value and, more importantly, why. Find an accountability partner and trust them. For some reason, new and improved have become synonyms and they are not. New is not always better, and improved is often subjective. To help this make sense, look at a ‘66 Ford Mustang Fastback.

Gary Larson made us laugh by pointing out the far side of the comedic spectrum. What signified his real genius was how his comics could hit so close to home. Healthy businesses, professionals, and people find balance. That’s very tough to do in chaotic times. If you are feeling yourself slip further and further, talk to someone. And look up some of his old comics because a good laugh never hurts.

Jeff Jones

Jeff JonesJeff Jones is the Director of Sales and Marketing for Violand Management Associates (VMA), a highly respected consulting company in the restoration and cleaning industries. Jeff has a wide range of experience in professional sales and marketing involving all levels of decision makers. Through VMA, Jeff works with companies to find the right mix of programs and services to help them develop their people and their profits. To reach him, visit Violand.com or call (800) 360-3513.

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