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An Optimist and a Pessimist Walk Into a Bar 8

An Optimist and a Pessimist Walk Into a Bar

Here’s a somewhat funny story from my first book. Enjoy.

My wife Wendy and I lived in the same dorm during our first year at the University of Virginia. We met on the balcony a day or two after we moved in. She was wearing cute shorts and t-shirt. I was wearing bibbed overalls and no shirt. You see, I grew up in the country and that’s what we wore. Well, not all the time, just for special occasions. And yes, I’m surprised Wendy even talked to me.

A few months later, we started dating. And while we came from different parts of the country, had different life experiences, and were pursuing different college majors, we did share similar values. However, there was one major difference in the way we approached our classwork. I tended to be a bit of an optimist and she was more of a pessimist.

As a pseudo-optimist, I assumed most situations would work out just fine unless something happened to suggest otherwise. Wendy, on the other hand, tended to assume the worst. That way, if things didn’t work out, she wouldn’t be disappointed. In other words, by expecting the negative, she was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t materialize. That’s what I call “reverse-anti-counter-optimism”.

We discovered this difference during our first year in college. Wendy was in the engineering school and I was in the college of arts and sciences. In some ways, I guess you could say that Wendy was in real college and I was in training for graduate school. In fact, I had multiple areas of focus. I was a pre-med student with a psychology major and a drama minor. My dad used to tell his friends, “He’s pre-med with a drama minor. So, if he doesn’t get into med school, I guess he can be on General Hospital.”

Now back to our pessimism-optimism issues. Here’s how our differences played out. If Wendy took an exam and I saw her later that day, she would be devastated. She would mope around the rest of the afternoon saying, “I know I failed that test. I just know I failed it.”

In specific detail, she would describe the questions she missed, the details she left out, and how she forgot to carry over one digit in a particular differential equation. All I could think was, “I have no idea what a ‘differential equation’ is. In fact, I don’t even know the differential between a #1 and a #2 pencil.”

For the next couple of days, Wendy lived in this uneasy place of anxiety, convinced that she was going to flunk out of college and end up without a job. Needless to say, she had higher aspirations. I mean, she was in the engineering school. She was destined to drive a train.

At UVA, and I assume at most other colleges at the time, the professors posted the students’ grades on their doors. There was no confidentiality, no HIPAA, and no hiding from your place, relative to the other students. Wendy would make her way to the professor’s office and force herself to look for her grade. And every time, to her surprise, her grade was not only the highest in the class, the professor would have set the curve based on her grade. In other words, she was the standard by which her classmates were measured. In four years of engineering at the University of Virginia, she only received two A minuses and that was the worst it ever got.

I, on the other hand, had a slightly different experience.

After I took an exam, I’d get back to my dorm and my roommate would ask how the test had been. I would say, “Oh, my! I aced it! It was one of the easiest exams I’ve ever taken. In fact, I know it was easy because I was the first one to leave!”

For several days, the sky was blue, the birds were singing, and I was certain that I would be accepted at any medical school in the country. I had actually proven that I could party all week, wait until the last minute to study, and still get an A.

Then, just like Wendy, I’d go to my professor’s office to get the confirmation of my achievement. As was the norm, the names were listed by grade. I scanned down the list and my first thought was that he had inadvertently left my name off the list. Then I thought that perhaps the list was alphabetical this time and maybe he was using first names instead of last names. “R” does come later in the alphabet.

Then, I’d see it, towards the bottom of the list: Culberson, Ron   C—.

My grade was below average…again. I was actually positioned in the the part of the Bell Curve that made Wendy’s grade possible.

I was crushed. I couldn’t imagine how this happened. I knew the material, sort of. I had studied, sort of. And as I walked slowly back to my dorm, contemplating my failure, all I wanted to do was spend a solemn evening with a beer and my A+ girlfriend.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen either. Because Wendy was studying.

As you can see by this story, both of our expectations were flawed. And because of it, we experienced angst at different places along the way. As I look back, I realize that we weren’t seeing the reality of the moment but basing our experiences on inaccurate expectations that we created in our heads.

So, I guess the lesson here is to stay in the moment and not get drawn into the drama of reverse-counter-anti-optimistic-pessimism!


  • Karen Snyder says:

    Yup, as I recall, that’s pretty much how it happened!

  • Thomas says:

    Ron, excellent story and lesson, thanks for sharing. A question: how does an outlook or philosophy of life survive when so many sociopaths and narcissists have risen to upper-level management positions in the U.S.? Their philosophy of life is to view people as things and to use theses people for the benefit of the fearless leader. And as a Ph.D. psychologist told me, “A sociopath is a narcissist who has been caught doing something wrong, and if you are the person who caught them, run!

    • Yeah, good question. My first thought is that we can’t let those people define our way of seeing things. It’s hard to fight the urge to be pessimistic when people do negative things but they don’t represent my view of the world and probably don’t represent most people’s view. However, they are in the positions of power and visibility which makes it tough. Also, I like to focus my efforts on impacting the small community around me (home, neighbors, community, work, etc.). Hopefully, the positivity that we put out to our immediate surroundings will be contagious. But it’s definitely a challenge!

  • shirley daniels says:

    Good lesson & very hard to accomplish.

  • William Kampmeier says:

    If you and Wendy ever become bored with each other, please let me know…I think she and I would enjoy discussing differential equations.

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