Try “Thinking Negative” for a Change

thinking negativeI’m an optimist by nature — I usually expect things will all work out. But I find that I’m more successful and experience less disappointment when I practice “thinking negative.” What do I mean by that?

When I “think negative,” I factor into my habitual “positive thinking” a realistic assessment of the difficulties, challenges or obstacles that may be in front of me. I attempt to understand any potential risks or pitfalls in my path. Wherever I’m headed, whatever my goals might be, I can’t afford to be unreservedly positive.

There are several clear advantages to “negative thinking,” including:

♦ When you’re focused on “thinking positive,” you may not be adequately prepared for the challenges of your journey, and therefore fail to meet them successfully.

♦ Thinking through the negatives keeps you from being overly surprised or disappointed when things don’t go as you’d hoped or planned.

♦ You are more likely to avoid magical thinking. (Magical thinking is common in writers, by the way. For example: “I WILL meet my deadline, I will, I will!” As the deadline flies right by.)

♦ If you can honestly acknowledge possible negatives and keep going, then you’re probably on a path that’s right for you.

♦ When you’re realistic about potential challenges, you are often pleasantly surprised at the smoothness of your path.

♦ If you’re “thinking positive,” you may be inclined to think your path is going to be easier than it really is, so you won’t allow enough time to accomplish the goal, and you may not have enough diligence or discipline to get it done.

There are countless ways to apply “negative thinking” to the writing life:

♦ Instead of telling yourself simply, “I’m going to get published,” you realistically assess the obstacles and tell yourself, “I’m going to work hard, be persistent, and bust through all the barriers, and eventually get published.”

♦ Instead of telling yourself, “I know thousands of people are going to want to buy my book,” you look at how many people publish books with little success, then determine, “I’m going to pull out all the stops marketing my book so that anyone who might like it will have the opportunity to buy it.”

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not disputing the value of positive thinking. I do it all the time! But the key to success is realistic optimism — what I’ve been referring to here as “thinking negative.” Bring reality into your positive thinking, for a much brighter chance of reaching your goals.

Do you believe in “thinking negative” sometimes? How can it help you in pursuing your goals?



Try “Thinking Negative” for a Change. Click to Tweet.

“Think negative” for a better chance of reaching your goals. Click to Tweet.

When you’re focused on thinking positive, you may not be prepared for challenges. Click to Tweet.


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  2. Mike Loomis on March 16, 2013 at 7:52 PM

    Love this! Particularly “If you can honestly acknowledge possible negatives and keep going, then you’re probably on a path that’s right for you.”
    Great advice!

  3. Terrific Thursday Mash-up! | Jamie Ayres on March 14, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    […] manuscript perfection. She also discussed author rights and responsibilities, and why thinking negative thoughts can be a good thing. I found it very […]

  4. […] Rachelle Gardner claims she’s more successful when she practices ‘thinking negative’, ‘When I “think negative,” I factor into my habitual “positive thinking” a realistic assessment of the difficulties, challenges or obstacles that may be in front of me. I attempt to understand any potential risks or pitfalls in my path.’ You can read the full post here. […]

  5. EvieMcLaughlin on March 9, 2013 at 3:41 AM

    … AND tormy, isn’t a new word, it’s ‘to my’. Oh Dear! Who didn’t proof read their post. I was being UNrealistically optimistic that I hadn’t made any typos!

  6. EvieMcLaughlin on March 9, 2013 at 3:39 AM

    Umm – that would be ‘trying to DECIDE!!’

  7. EvieMcLaughlin on March 9, 2013 at 3:39 AM

    I think your term REALISTIC OPTIMISM is my term for the month. Having a very difficult time with a major rewrite and trying to diced how much to follow some valuable advice and how much to stick tormy guns. Currently researching/thinking/writing/fretting/feeling inspired/changing my mind… to give me the answers. But being realistically optimistic is a way of thinking about the process that I could enjoy. Believing that one day I will be able to write my story in a way that is strong enough to be published.

  8. Lisette Brodey on March 8, 2013 at 10:39 PM

    I’m a pretty realistic thinker, but likely many people, throughout the years, I’ve gone to the “dark side” because it’s a way of protecting myself from disappointment.

    First, let me explain that I’m talking about ME of MANY years ago right now. People were constantly telling me to “Think positively!” It was drummed in my ear all the time.

    It annoyed me, but still, I got to thinking: Maybe I should say positive things. Then, one day, I did. And immediately, the person I was with said: “Well, now, don’t get your hopes up!”

    Ugh! I wanted to scream.

    What I’ve come to realize over the years is that if you’re too positive, people thing they need to bring you down. If you’re too negative, people try to bring you up. Wherever you are with your thinking, someone will always find the need to balance you out.

    I don’t think of it as positive or negative, but realistic. And being realistic is just as you’ve stated it, Rachelle. I work very hard to put my best work out there. That’s all I can do.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking blog!

  9. […] I bet no one has ever told you THINK NEGATIVE before!  Rachelle Gardner shares the smarts about goal achieving in Try “Thinking Negative” for a Change. […]

  10. Peter DeHaan on March 7, 2013 at 7:12 PM

    While reading the post, I thought I’d go for “realistic thinking,” but once I read the phrase “realistic optimism,” I prefer the perspective instead.

  11. Laura on March 7, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    Approaching anything from a realistic perspective is great. I choose not to use the word “negative” though because it conjures, for me, something diminished or taken away. I want to be aware of all the possible outcomes which in my mind means looking at all sides of the equation, but I won’t say that any possible outcome is negative. It’s all a process and we experience something as we go through that process. Even if we don’t meet our deadline it doesn’t have to be negative. It should encourage us to utilize our time in a better manner next time around.

    Thanks for sparking some creative thinking for me though on the subject of realistic expectations and planning.

  12. Bob Mayer on March 7, 2013 at 4:04 PM

    One must catastrophe plan as a writer.

    You Catastrophe Plan for 3 reasons:
    a) To try to avoid the catastrophe.
    b) To have a plan, equipment, training etc. in place in case the catastrophe strikes.
    c) To give you peace of mind in day-to-day living so you don’t constantly have to worry about potential disasters because you are prepared for them. This allows you to experience a higher quality of life.

  13. Heather Day Gilbert on March 7, 2013 at 3:10 PM

    I frequently think of myself as a “Marshwiggle” (like Puddleglum in The Silver Chair). Planning for the absolute worst, but thrilled beyond compare when and if the best happens to happen.

    HOWEVER, I struggle with having enough FAITH that God wants the best for us. I know it deep down, but I always feel like I might be some kind of exception! In the end, though, I know things will work out the way He wants them to.

    I would LOVE to be more optimistic, like my mom or my hubby. But it’s cool to be married to someone opposite you in this regard–makes you a stronger pair.

  14. Suzanne Vince on March 7, 2013 at 1:14 PM

    It’s like my favorite saying: Blessed are those who expect nothing, for they are never disappointed. Some think that’s a pessimistic view on life, but I think it’s a realistice view. It’s really another way to say: Plan for the worst, hope for the best.

  15. Melinda Viergever Inman on March 7, 2013 at 12:56 PM

    A strong dose of reality is always essential for magical-thinking authors. We so often get ahead of ourselves in our imaginations. Thank you for the reminder, Rachelle.

  16. Jenny on March 7, 2013 at 12:38 PM

    If it’s an issue of balancing out extremes on one side or the other, then yes, one must practice being more positive or more negative as the case may be.

    I used to be very negative, justifying it by telling everyone, “hey, at least I can face reality…” But that was a slippery slope, and most of what I was afraid of never happened, and my negativity was really my biggest problem! My husband has helped me see that whether we see things as falsely positive or falsely negative – both are equally untrue and potentially destructive.

    That left me feeling empty, because then all any of us have to go on is what we actually know. And for most of us, that’s very little.

    The end goal should be to find the place where we are content to be hopeful,and work toward doing right, and doing well, knowing that problems and disappointments will come.

    And no, that’s not easy at all. It’s easier to assume either everything is wonderful, or everything is terrible. Keeping a healthy, functional balance is hard work. Ugh.

  17. Neil Larkins on March 7, 2013 at 11:24 AM

    It’s all about balance, the yin and yang, the ol’ draw-a-line-down-the-middle-of-the-paper kind of thing. A useful and effective approach to life.I don’t live that way…which says more about me than anything…but still holds true. Thanks, Rachelle.

  18. Perry Perrett on March 7, 2013 at 10:34 AM

    I live in the “Think Negative”. It’s the only thing that keeps me going.

  19. Andi-Roo (@theworld4realz) on March 7, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    I don’t think pragmatism is necessarily the same thing as negative thinking.

    Being cynical and jaded, expecting the worst, playing the victim, and looking for the cloud instead of the silver lining — these are the things that come to my mind when the term negative thinking is bantered about.

    One of my Personal Commandments is this:
    “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

    Bringing an umbrella is not the same thing as whining about how much it always rains, and how it’s likely to ruin your outdoor wedding, and that your life sucks because things like this always happen to you. Bringing an umbrella is pragmatic and preparation for the worst. Wearing that strapless gown even though the storm clouds are gathering is hope.The rest is just so much negative BS.

    I do like what one reader suggested, that living in the moment is better than either moaning about what already happened or groaning about what’s likely to happen. There is indeed a certain comfort in chanting “It is what it is,” which is my a favorite phrase of my hubz. Since I am somewhat prone to negativity, this is a bit too relaxed for me. But I am definitely getting better at turning my negativity into pragmatism: That is, carrying an umbrella. And I’ve learned to accept that despite the best-laid plans, sometimes “shit happens.” My umbrella ain’t gonna help much in a windstorm. But a bride who can laugh through the clouds and find the silver lining — “we’re all in this together, and what fun we are having!” is one who can be envied.

    Which remind me of another of my Personal Commandments: “Catastrophe now makes a great story later.”

    It’s okay to acknowledge that “shit happens.” It’s not okay to wallow in it. Laugh, damn it! 🙂

  20. Robin Patchen on March 7, 2013 at 10:21 AM

    Rachelle, I know exactly what you mean. My husband is one of those so-called negative thinkers. It’s not that he’s a pessimist. He’s not Eeyore, moaning about the rain all day long. But when he sees an opportunity, he usually sees all the obstacles to its success. Then he diligently works to address the potential issues until he’s satisfied he can manage them all. And then he’s convinced. I think my husband’s negative thinking has saved us a lot of heartache and money over the years.

    I’m more of a positive thinker, but when it comes to this writing life, I know enough to keep my expectations focused on God. Maybe I can’t see the pitfalls like my husband can, but I know the road won’t be smooth. And I know, whenever I stumble, God will hold me up.

  21. Rose Gardener on March 7, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    I hesitated to read on past today’s title, as negative thinking is something I REFUSE to indulge in after all I’ve survived.
    However, it turns out that what you call negative thinking (or realistic optimism) is what I term optimistic planning with aforethought!
    We may not be singing the same lyrics, but at least the melody is the same 🙂

  22. Lanny on March 7, 2013 at 9:22 AM

    Very wise post, Rachelle. Nobody can stand to read a sugary, optimistic work of fiction that is naive to today’s rather brutal realities.

  23. Claude Nougat on March 7, 2013 at 4:35 AM

    Love this, I do it all the time!

    For me, it’s the best insurance against failure and the temptation of sinking into depression and paralysis!

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray on March 7, 2013 at 8:35 AM

      Me too!

      Being realistic is the strength that helps me cope with the challenges of my life.

  24. Dabney Hedegard on March 6, 2013 at 10:51 PM

    Ha. This is perfect for someone like me. I’m a perpetual realist.

    Yea. I finally conquered one of Rachelle’s suggested points.

    Are there prizes for winning?


    See. I’m thinking negative already.

    Nice message, Rachelle.

    (Although you may not want read my recent post. I share tricks on rewiring those negative thoughts since I’ve struggled most of my life listening to them.)

    Dabney 🙂

  25. Jamie Beck on March 6, 2013 at 8:44 PM

    This was the topic of a December 2012 WSJ article entitled The Power of Negative Thinking,
    which references the book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman.

    I’ve always been a critical realist, but never considered myself to be a pessimist. LOL

    I like to think of myself as optimistic because I don’t quit and I believe in finding solutions. But I don’t like rose colored glasses and can’t work well with people who wear them.

  26. Jennifer Smith on March 6, 2013 at 7:42 PM

    I understand this concept completely. I’ve always been one to think through situations realistically. It drives my husband crazy. 😉

  27. Thomas on March 6, 2013 at 7:15 PM

    It is so critical to have both a realistic view of the present and an optimistic view as well.

    The Stockade Paradox: You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. And at the same time, Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

  28. Susan Bernhardt on March 6, 2013 at 5:47 PM

    I will never strive to be negative. For any reason! Negativity will never help me to become published.

    I am a realistic person. A positive, realistic person, and I hope I will always stay that way.

  29. Krista Phillips on March 6, 2013 at 5:10 PM


    Honestly, at first I recoiled while reading this.

    I am, at heart, a firm believer in thinking and SPEAKING into the positive.

    But as I finished the post, I think our definition of “negative thinking” is different. I TOTALLY agree with what you wrote here!

    I hear so many people beat themselves down in true negative thinking… “I’ll never amount to anything…” “I’m doing all this for nothing…” “I’ll submit but I’m sure they’ll reject me” “Yeah, I entered the contest, but I know I’m going to lose.”

    Seriously? If I thought like that all the time I’d need some MAJOR anti-depressants!

    But I also know there is value in adequately assessing risks and reality. When my sweet baby was in the hospital, I called it “Being pessimistically optimistic.” Mostly because I HAD to think positive… yet be aware of the risks and the reality that her condition was sever and she might not make it. Extreme… but if I dwelt on the negative , I’d have totally crumbled. It’s that fine balance between being positive yet aware of the realities at the same time.

    I’ve applied the same mindset to my writing. I have a lot of HOPES and dreams and goals, yet I understand the hard work involved and that ultimately, Jesus is what I need to put my focus on, and He’ll work out everything else in His timing.

  30. MELewis on March 6, 2013 at 4:07 PM

    How refreshing! Whether you call it negative thinking or just a healthy dose of realism, this post strikes a welcome note of humility amidst so much blithe optimism and positivity.

  31. Angie Bigler on March 6, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    I like this idea of realistic optimism. I have gone through extreme swings of positive and negative thinking in my life and a balance of the two helps me to stay in check.

  32. Dana Strang on March 6, 2013 at 3:49 PM

    LOVE THIS! It is about time somebody spread the word that negative does not equal bad. you need a bit of it to stay grounded in reality and as you say, to prepare yourself for whe things go bad…
    I have always lived by the motto “Expect the worst, Hope for the best”.
    It is good to be postivie to a point, and I am. But you can’t lose sight of reality – sometimes thigns go bad.
    Nicely written.

  33. Cherry Odelberg on March 6, 2013 at 3:47 PM

    Though I make it a conscious aim to be upbeat and positive with words I speak (there is too much heaviness and sadness in the world already); inside, I am the unwelcome SKEPTIC that C.S. Lewis characterizes in “That Hideous Strength” – often necessary to the success of the group by keeping a firm grip on reality.

  34. Wendy Paine Miller on March 6, 2013 at 2:18 PM

    Realistic optimism—yes. Thinking negative—not so much.

    Maybe I’ve just been turned off by too many negative thinkers. And I also know where it leads in my life. Paying attention to any kind of negative thinking tends to stifle my creativity.

    Expecting obstacles and moving forward both hopeful and prepared, that’s what has granted me the most success in life so far.

    There’s something undeniably attractive about individuals who are able to focus on the positive even in the midst of the most dismal situations. Not in a naïve, unrealistic manner, but I’m referring to the outlook and inspirational influence demonstrated by bold leaders.
    ~ Wendy

    • Sue Harrison on March 6, 2013 at 2:45 PM

      What you said, Wendy. Exactly!

  35. Elissa on March 6, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    I’m constantly thinking about what can go wrong and preparing for it. I see from other posters that I’m not the only one who does this. To me that’s not “negative”, it’s proactive. It’s far too easy to give up, get lost, or drown if you don’t have a “Plan B” ready when “Plan A” derails.

  36. Rebekkah N. on March 6, 2013 at 1:01 PM

    I call it “Optimistic pessimism,” and it’s what I live by. Hope for the best, but never expect it; prepare the hardest situation imaginable, and learn how to find the good in anything. And never, ever count on luck–because luck comes in two flavors, and it’s too easy to end up with the nasty one.

  37. Dale S. Rogers on March 6, 2013 at 12:06 PM

    I’ve always tended to be a negative thinker, and I can see the benefits
    of thinking that way to a degree. Was it Benjamin Franklin who said it helped to avoid disappointment?

  38. Vannetta chapman on March 6, 2013 at 11:07 AM

    I’m an incurable optimist. BUT life has taught me that there’s real value in considering obstacles. My motto? Carry a helmet, because at some point the sky usually does start to fall. Great article.

  39. Meghan Carver on March 6, 2013 at 10:24 AM

    I think I could be the poster child for thinking negatively. The biggest benefit is being prepared, sometimes overly so. Love your term, Rachelle – realistic optimism. I need to work on the optimism part.

  40. Jeanne T on March 6, 2013 at 10:20 AM

    Good thoughts here. I like to call it “thinking realistically.” 🙂 Learning all the facets of accomplishing a goal or dream gives me a realistic view of what’s required. Talking with those who are further along the writing journey has given me a realistic understanding of what’s required, as well as encouragement and wisdom to move toward my goals.

  41. Heather on March 6, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    A very interesting description. In my architectural career, we try to create very unbiased views of how to get somewhere with a project. Design the dream but be realistic about budget is probably the best example. But I agree, there are positive ways of looking at the roadblocks that give you a view of how to overcome them, rather than deny them, which is how we usually operate. Thanks for the examples.

  42. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on March 6, 2013 at 2:26 AM

    It’s an interesting idea, but not one I practice.

    What I have learned is that my “realistic assessments”, be they positive or negative, are always colored, either by wish-fulfillment or by a transient nihilism. That makes my feelings fundamentally unreliable.

    What to do? Well, I try to drop both pessimism AND optimism, and just set myself to work, without hope, fear, or expectation. Whatever happens…it’s okay.

    It may sound awfully dull, but really, it’s liberating, because I can live in the moment, not sacrificing “now” to either pipe dreams or night fears.

    • Jared on March 7, 2013 at 10:42 AM

      That’s an interesting strategy, Andrew. I like the sound of it, in theory. No one likes the thought of being somehow manipulated by their own emotion, whether positive or negative. Though I wonder if this strategy of thinking would make it harder to move past obstacles and reach ones goals? For example, you write a book, submit to a few agents, it gets rejected, and you think, “ah, wasn’t meant to be.” I guess the key is to make sure you’re working your hardest/best even without those emotional motivators. For many people, that might be hard to do.

  43. Beth K. Vogt on March 6, 2013 at 1:03 AM

    Think Negatively = Be Realistic … and then be even more realistic.
    That’s a wise move.
    Some days reality smacks me harder than other days.
    The challenge is to refuse to go sit on the ledge and mope.
    Instead, I have to choose to use reality as fuel for my passion.

    • Jo Murphey on March 7, 2013 at 6:51 AM

      I agree with you. I have a optomists view point tempered with reality.