This Christmas, Hug an Optimist

People have often accused me of being an optimist, as if “accusing” were the right thing to do when confronted with an optimist.

I remember one executive who, when I shared with her my vision for transforming my team of data entry “pair of hands” workers into true store communicators, looked at me with great skepticism, said my name in a tone determined to curdle my blood, and asked, “What makes you think these people can do this?” I looked straight into her eye and told her that either my team would embrace the change, step up, and make it happen, or they’d self-select out, or I’d help them with that decision. She single-shoulder shrugged with that wry mouth-twist that non-optimists use to say, “Knock yourself out but it ain’t gonna work.” I am proud to say that she was wrong. It took time, patience, and a lot of hard work, but we did it. Some of the team stayed and thrived and some of them self-selected out; and I didn’t have to help anyone from that original team decide to go.

It sometimes feels like my whole life has been people telling me that the things I want to do are impossible and my doing them. Sometimes they’re right – sometimes Hurricane Sandy hits and I host Christmas for 12 people with wires hanging out of my ceiling and no oven, and the evening ends with an epic sister-to-sister fight that the kids are still talking about years later. But sometimes we do impossible things.

So optimism isn’t enough but I posit that it is required. You have to believe that you can, then you have to figure out how to get it done, motivate people to do it, and persist until it’s done. Part of that is asking yourself, “If this weren’t impossible, how would I get it done?” and part of it is in how you define success (and redefine it, when needed). PBS recently broadcast a video of the great off-Broadway show, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, which recounts the story of Shackleton’s terrible trip to Antarctica, where his ship was trapped in pack ice for over a year, then destroyed by that same ice. He led his entire crew (well, his entire 22-person human crew) across the open ocean in a rowboat to the wrong (wrong because it was uninhabited) island, then continued on his own through the most turbulent oceans in the world through a hurricane, to the uninhabited side of an inhabited island, across an insurmountable mountain range to a whaling station and sailed back to rescue his entire crew, bring them all home alive. Gosh what a guy (and what a show – I highly recommend it but you’ll have to find the video because the musical skill and technical resources required to pull it off make it highly unlikely that you will find it at your local Little Theatre).

This is a tough time for optimists. You can tell us that things are impossible and it won’t bring us down – we love it when people tell us things are impossible; we take it as a challenge. You can tell us that we can’t transform our departments and we’ll prove us wrong. You can put us in a rowboat in the Drake Passage and throw a hurricane at us, and we’ll find a way home.

But what we really hate, what is really like fingernails on the blackboard for us, is being surrounded by people who carp. All. The. Time. I once had dinner with a couple who spent the evening arguing – from the moment they arrived at our home, they started in, and they continued through appetizers, salad, dinner, dessert, and after-dinner drinks. By the time we sat down at the table for dinner, I had checked out completely and, after my husband poured the Cognac, I started doing all the things you do when you want people to leave, like clearing the table, washing dishes, turning up the lights. What got me – what totally killed me – was that they agreed completely about whatever it was (it was during the Clinton administration, so I’m guessing it was something to do with congress not allowing the Clintons to fix healthcare). What they were arguing about was why it was impossible; the husband had one theory about why it would never pass and the wife had a different theory.

Nothing kills an optimist more than having everyone around them griping and seeing every little thing as an insurmountable obstacle. It’s really hard to empty that room in search of the pony when everyone around you is whining about the stink, the germs, the damage to their shoes – who cares! Just hold your breath and keep digging until you empty the room. Even if you don’t find a pony, at least you’ll have cleaned the room or earned some fine Augean cattle.

See, there I go again – I was going to tell you how challenging this time is for optimists and I slipped in an exhortation to dig in and get it done instead of whining about the lying, the hypocrisy, the fear-mongering, the blatant attempt to undermine the rule of law, the overwhelming number of negative stories in the news, the carping by talking heads and late night comedians, the horrific holiday dinner chatter – the kids once again had to tell the adults No Trump Talk so we could have dinner in peace – it’s exhausting. To paraphrase the SNL ladies’ song from early December, “Robert Mueller, just give me back my life again.”

At Thanksgiving I did something I had never done before. I’ve been reading a lot lately about how expressing gratitude can help your mood. So I tried it. Nothing big – no ten-page letters, just a quick note thanking people for being in my life. It made me feel great and, based on the responses, I got, it made them feel good, too. I highly recommend it.

Because we all need a little more optimism in our lives. Especially right now.

Merry Christmas, y’all.

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