An Idealistic Pessimists Guide to Playing the Waiting Game

Two things to know at the start of this:

  • at the time of writing, I’m waiting for feedback on first sketches for two smallish projects; and
  • I generally try to be an idealistic pessimist (‘hope for the best, expect the worst’)

Here is why I think an idealistic pessimist’s mindset is possibly one of the more useful, both for working in the media or arts and also living through a (badly managed?) pandemic.

This particular mindset tends to push me into the following thought process:

  • expect the worst
  • prepare for any potential problems or mistakes that are within your power to deal with
  • envision how wonderful it can be if everything goes as best as it can, both in terms of the process and end product.

But first things first – I know it will never, ever be that awesomely good. My idealism is extreme and I always imagine truly great things for any project I take on. The chance of the project getting remotely close to that stage (depending on the project, obvs) are vanishingly small. Did I mention how extreme my idealism is?

And even if I get close to that delightful, ideal scenario… there’ll always be the people for whom the project won’t tick the right boxes, and maybe they’ll think it’s ‘meh’. In both the arts and media worlds, no matter the general consensus, awesome brilliance will always be subjective.

Secondly, things always go wrong. Sometimes tiny errors, sometimes huge blunders. However, all is not lost – you were ready for it, right? Like me, your idealism now comes with a healthy dose of pessimism, and with it the expectation that mistakes are unsurprising. After all, all people everywhere make mistakes, without exception – to err is human, etc.

It’s both how you prepare in advance, and, subsequently, how you deal with these events at the time, that may decide any eventual outcome. More importantly, how well you accept what you can’t have foreseen or don’t have the power to rectify in the moment can significantly affect your mental health (though my ability to deal with these latter recommendations is still a work-in-progress, I’m getting better. Slowly.)

Waiting is a very common experience in this business – for example, at any given moment I could be waiting for:

  • acceptance or rejection of a project pitch
  • feedback on a cue sketch
  • decisions on track versions and variations
  • recordings from a session musician
  • confirmation of a meeting time
  • feedback on a legal agreement
  • a contract to be signed
  • an invoice to be paid

For some projects the wait is literally minutes, for others it can be months – or even years.

This experience is closely paralleled by the waiting game we’re experiencing here in the UK and in many countries around the world. The interminable wait for the end of successive lockdowns, the wait for a vaccine, the wait for schools to open, the wait to be vaccinated, the wait to get your second vaccination, the wait to get your test results back…

The commonality in all of these waits? The uncertainty of when that wait will finish.

The Open Loop

The uncertainty creates an ‘open loop’ that attracts your brain’s conscious focus. It’s always there, in the back of your mind, draining attentional energy, distracting you with not-so-helpful ‘reminders’. It’ll keep popping up into your mind’s-eye view at the most inopportune moments: maybe when you’re trying to focus on other things; or maybe when you’re about to fall asleep at night.

So, what to do? You want to close that loop or, at least, delay revisiting it to a later time.

  • Write whatever is playing on your mind down, journal it out, do some mind mapping, etc. Pop that niggling thought somewhere tangible outside of your mind and into the real world.
  • Pick an arbitrary, limited time to revisit thinking about it (‘worry’ time) – one that’s more convenient to you. Schedule it in your planner, calendar, etc.
  • Pick a reasonable, arbitrary time to chase up for an answer. Schedule it in.
  • In the case of vague or provisional dates provided by others, instead choose your own definite, certain, arbitrary time to expect a definite response. Schedule it in.
  • However long you think it might be, sometimes it’s worth then adding on at least half as much time again in the the future on top of that (if not anywhere up to double that time). Schedule … you get the idea.

In this way, a little bit of Idealistic Pessimism, judiciously applied to whatever bothers you, leads to a much reduced chance of disappointment, and having more energy for all the things you actually want to think about and work on.

For example, June 21st (2021) is being touted here (at the time of writing) as some sort of grand reopening of the British economy – when things can all ‘go back to normal’.

All things going to plan, in an ideal world, this is the absolute earliest date possilbe. So, all things being equal, in real life IT’S NOT GOING TO BE THAT EARLY. At the time of writing, that’s roughly 3 months away. Using these (completely arbitrary) idealistic pessimist’s guidelines, we can now move that 21st of June date further, to, say, mid August, or even around the beginning of October.

By managing our inner idealists’ expectations with these pessimistic projections, we can still duly celebrate if the date is earlier, but we won’t be crushingly disappointed if (when) the original June date is missed. Win-win.

Cave Brain

Your poor, caveperson brain is just trying to keep you safe. You’ve tagged this wait as something uncertain. Evolutionarily, the cave-person bits of your brain are likely to see any sort of uncertainty as some degree of dangerous, which will inevitably lead to anxiety. Even worse, if you don’t know the limits of the uncertainty, your mind will go for the million-dollar question: ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’.

Extrapolating as far and imaginatively as you could, this uncertainty could cause all manner of problems, probably leading to the ultimate existential threat – death. Da-da-daaaaah!

This processing is often subconscious; this threat management. The only thing you might notice is that your focus is off; maybe you feel at a bit scattered and tired.

If it goes on for a while you’ll become anxious and fatigued. Familiar?

Perhaps, if it continues, maybe you’ll get burnout and depression. And around this time, the ultimate subconscious thought (and maybe even conscious at this point) will be ‘what’s the point?’.

As in ‘what’s the point of any of this if the chance is I’m going to die and there’s nothing I can do about it because I don’t know any of the variables?’. Catastrophisation much?

I got to something like this stage around September last year. It was not fun. First port of call – TIME OFF. A privilege maybe, but, if you can get it, take it – so that then you can show up later all the better for those in your life that don’t have that privilege.

One final thing to note – being an idealistic pessimist isn’t always… popular. Nobody likes a naysayer, or so they say. If you’re taking on this mindset, buyer beware. But if you think it might be useful, it’s yours for the taking, and good luck with all your future waits!


I definitely have a large amount of Cal Newport‘s and Sarah Knight‘s work to be grateful to for helping me formulate some of these ideas. Also the character ‘Scotty‘ from Star Trek.


Image Copyright © 2015 H. Fenoughty (from Camelot: The Shining City). All Rights Reserved.