The End of Optimism (and Good Riddance!)

That deadline is fine! My schedule is wide open! The only thing on my calendar is my kidney transplant.

Writers may have a reputation for being cantankerous loners with drinking problems, but that characterization is not true at all. In my experience, most of you out there are cheery, charming optimists!

Did I just describe you? How lovely! Now, knock it off. That optimism of yours will ruin your career.

Alright, I’m exaggerating, but I would recommend that you adjust your optimism in one particular area: Stop Overpromising.

An optimist often thinks he or she can do more than what is realistically possible. As a magazine editor, I see this type of person all the time.

“Do you think you can have a draft to me in two weeks?” I ask.

“Absolutely!” the writer tells me. And she seriously believes it, too.

But in that moment of certainty, Ms. Optimist forgot to consider (or mention) that she has a sick, aging mother who needs tending; two children at home for summer vacation; another writing assignment she hasn’t exactly started yet; and a full time job that requires her to, you know, work full time.

We can all guess how this story ends. Two weeks come and go and my grubby little hands are empty. In fact, Ms. Optimist hasn’t even started the assignment. Now she’s filled with anxiety, guilt, and self-loathing – which is awful. Then she calls me up and grovels for an extension – which I find awful.

She apologizes upwards and downwards and sideways. Then she goes on about her personal problems – the sick mother, the two kids underfoot, and the other freelance job (that she also hasn’t finished) – begging me to take into consideration the very same things she failed to take into consideration when we agreed upon the deadline two weeks ago. It is not her finest moment.

See what optimism will get you?

So! May I humbly suggest a dash of pessimism?

Allow me to explain: I’m reasonably good at managing my time, so when I think a writing job will take me two weeks to complete, it often does. But, hey, it doesn’t always. Things happen. Who knows what’s waiting for me around the next corner? So when I think a job will take me two weeks, I ask the editor for three (or even four if I can get away with it). I might hear a little sigh of disappointment when I ask for the extra time, but I know that disappointment will later be replaced with delight when I submit my story ahead of deadline.

Full disclosure: I have never been hired by a sea turtle – but if I had, he’d be as happy as this.

Better yet, when my story comes in early, it looks as if I made an extra special effort to make the editor’s life easier. My reputation as Mr. Reliable is duly earned and I play well with others!

It’s easy to look good when you keep your promises under control.

Disney theme parks are especially good at practicing the art of underpromising. When you’re on line for a ride, you will see signs letting you know how much longer you’ll need to wait. Disney World’s wonderful little secret, however, is that when you reach the “30-Minute Wait” sign, you’ll never have to wait 30 minutes. You’ll be on Dumbo’s back in fewer than 15 – and you’ll be happy as a clam because the wait wasn’t nearly as long as you had expected. There’s a reason why Disney World is called “The Happiest Place On Earth.”

Not Disney World.

Now, imagine how happy Disney World would be if the sign said “30 Minute Wait” but you had to wait an hour. You would be livid. The editor whose deadline you missed might be similarly so.

Now I’m gonna tell you my little secret: As a magazine editor, missed deadlines don’t trouble me very much. Some people who don’t know me very well think it’s because I’m an easygoing fella, but, trust me, that’s not the reason. I’m untroubled because I’m a pessimist.

In other words, when I asked that cheery, charming, optimistic writer to get me a story in two weeks, I knew I wasn’t going to need if for another four.

68 thoughts on “The End of Optimism (and Good Riddance!)

  1. This is so true. And I’m one of those freelance writers. ; ) But I bust it to meet my deadlines… I know I won’t get another assignment if I don’t!

    Bless your pessimistic heart; all of us writers need you in our lives.

    • Groovy!

      The cool thing about The Art of Underpromising is that it can apply to all aspects of a person’s life.

      We all have at least one maddening acquaintance who fails to keep his promises because he can’t manage his time. We might be fond of this fellow, but we certainly can’t trust him.

      An underpromiser, on the other hand, never commits himself to too much. Because of this, he earns our trust.

  2. Excellent! oh wait too optimistic 🙂
    Over the years I have adjusted my optimism meter and now it’s usually on track, despite others delays…I’ve learned to build those into deadlines too. But there’s still an occasional begging for extension on my part, so I don’t feel I’m letting peeps like you down, hehehe

  3. I wrote a blog post a while ago over at Limebird writers about deadlines and in it I said that I couldn’t imagine how people could miss a deadline for a magazine editor and I still say that! When I write magazine articles, I always meet the deadline because I’m a good girl like that 🙂 Hope I won’t have to eat my words at some point…

  4. In my former life as an instructional facilitator and designer I told employees that the best thing they could do for our clients and for themselves would be to “under-promise and over-deliver”…that way everyone was happy when the realistic deadline was met and everyone was ecstatic if the promised outcome was delivered ahead of time. A win-win for all concerned.

  5. The “Art of Underpromising,” I believe you have coined a new phrase, I like it! I like to get my magazine articles in on time, and (knock on wood or whatever else works) I haven’t been late yet. I have a three month lead up time though, so I know it’s coming…

    • I am delighted to read that you respect The Deadline.

      I don’t think lead times matter for some people. I could give certain writers a year to get a story in and it would still be late. They’re attitude is “Hey I got all the time in the world to do this article. Let me take care of this other more urgent thing.”

      And then, as if by magic, the deadline is upon them and they have nothing. Let the apologetic call to the editor begin!

  6. roflmao! I’m an unabashed optimist and sometimes idealist, and if you read my about page, you see the result of such foolishness. I’ve shed some of the idealism, but I cling to optimism like a cat to a floating log.

    On the other hand, I don’t write Brady Bunch stories…most of the time. 😉

    Good post.

  7. OMG are you living in my head?! 😉 As a freelance writer I do over-promise, BUT the difference is that I’ll work around the clock if that’s what it takes to make my deadlines. In fact, if I turn an assignment in on the day it’s due, I consider it “late” by my standards. Here’s to realism overcoming unrealistic optimism!! 🙂

  8. Thank you so much for this post! Now when I THINK instead of trying to please everyone by putting my life on the back burner and do what I’m supposed to by the time I’m supposed to….. I won’t feel bad one bit. In fact, I know I’ll be making an editor happy. And me! Tada. Its a miracle.

    • Thanks for visiting, Daphne! Glad you liked the post.

      People overpromise to make people happy – which is a ridiculous thing to do when you think about it. When those promises are broken, the “promisees” are anything but.

      So keep those editors (and yourself) happy!

      • Its kind of purpose defeating. But most people only think short term. What will benefit us now? Instead of what am I actually, humanly capable of doing and how will it effect me and the editor in the future? Optimism sometimes overrides common sense. But its nice to know an editor thinks this way. 🙂

      • “Optimism sometimes overrides common sense,” summaries my entire point. And you did it in just five words — while I took about 700.

        Perhaps you should consider a career as an editor!

  9. Mike, this blog keeps getting better and better.

    I’m Autumn, and I’m an optimist. There, now I’ve confessed the terrible truth, I can start the change process, right?

    I don’t have an editor dishing out work to me specifically yet, but I have a nasty habit of setting self-made deadlines that are just plain crazy. Like seeing a Call for Submissions with an impossibly close due date and deciding to go for it, because idea machine my brain is, I can’t see a Call without getting at least one idea.

    The answer may just be to avoid reading those Call for Submissions posts on editor’s blogs. Or if I’m gonna read them, read them when they’re first posted, not a month and a half later!

    Though long deadlines do the “I’ve got ages to write this so I’ll do that first” thing for me. *sigh*

    If I want to write full-time (and I do!) knowing what makes a realistic deadline for me and how to keep it is one of the first lessons I need to learn.

  10. Pingback: Rejection- and a lesson on how I need to write « Making it real- mostly about writing, with a dash of sewing, growing food, and growing up

  11. That is such a good plan. Even for non-writers. When I want my sister to show up to a family function, I’m healthily pessimistic, and I always tell her a time that’s at least one hour prior to the time we’re suposed to actually meet. The, voila! She show’s up on time (the time we’re actually supposed to meet, one or two hours later). 🙂

  12. Unlike you, I HAVE been hired by a sea turtle. He was one cool dude.

    Being an eternal optimist, I can’t totally agree with your post; however, I DO agree that one should not be an optimist regarding deadlines!

  13. Pingback: Juggling « khaula mazhar

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