We think of optimism as being always positive about things, ignoring the negative and pushing on, almost warrior like in the face of adversities. This is of course is bolstered by hero like characters portrayed in our movies and popular culture. However, this is grossly wrong and extremely dangerous. For it is completely normal for people to feel deflated when external situations go against what we had planned for or anticipated. Imagine for an instance that you were desperate for that job interview that you did not get, despite having performed in an exemplary manner. It is natural to feel deflated. The “pop culture” optimist would mentally tell oneself to move on (“Come on”), ignore the feeling and distract oneself. This is very very risky.
The astounding American author and professor of literature, Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) is famous for having come up with the Hero’s Journey. This describes every sincere individuals struggles in life. The Hero’s journey consists of the following phases: A strong urge or calling > ignore the call > a transformational moment > immense challenges and frustrations > the nadir of existence, where one almost gives up > rebirth > immense inner transformation > reward / arrival / satisfaction. Campbell found that this metaphor underlies all our myths and even movies. Think of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Cast Away, Batman, Superman and so on. We even see this in our own lives – provided we haven’t given up.
This brings us to two types of people: pessimists who give up when things go wrong and the so called optimists who manage to plough on despite challenges. Dan Goleman in his bestseller Emotional Intelligence says this,
“Seligman defines optimism in terms of how people explain to themselves their successes and failures. People who are optimistic see a failure as due to something that can be changed so that they can succeed next time around, while pessimists take the blame for failure, ascribing it to some lasting characteristic they are helpless to change. These differing explanations have profound implications for how people respond to life. For example, in reaction to a disappointment such as being turned down for a job, optimists tend to respond actively and hopefully, by formulating a plan of action, say, or seeking out help and advice; they see the setback as something that can be remedied. Pessimists, by contrast, react to such setbacks by assuming there is nothing they can do to make things go better the next time, and so do nothing about the problem; they see the setback as due to some personal deficit that will always plague them.”
My hunch is that for a given level of intelligence, your actual achievement is a function not just of talent, but also of the capacity to stand defeat.”Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence (p. 89). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
And this is indeed brilliant, optimism is the ‘capacity to stand defeat’. How do we talk to ourselves? Do we tell ourselves it is okay to have lost? Do we tell ourselves that this isn’t a reflection of who I am but of what I did wrong? How I can improve it?
We have to be very careful here. The “macho” type of people might deal with failures by either denying them (example: Trump) or some of us who “brush it aside”. Both have to be avoided at all costs. Denying failure means that we are narcissistic – that we simply cannot accept the fact that we can be wrong or have lost. Brushing aside failure in order to avoid painful feelings means that we can never truly learn from our failures. That we cannot stand to have lost, to have failed. Many people laugh about their failures, distract themselves and move on. While moving on is far better than being a pessimist and constantly wallow in worries, one loses an important opportunity to learn and improve. People who constantly “brush things aside” tend never to get good at anything in particular. They move from thing to thing, person to person. The capacity to handle defeat, come from the capacity to sit with your emotions and face them unabashedly.
Therefore, the next time you fail, take a break and sit with yourself. Reflect on how you are feeling. Obviously this feels terrible. A constriction in the throat, crunched feeling in the chest, weird butterflies in the stomach and an overall pulled down feeling. This is normal. It happens to everyone on the planet. Know that these feelings are in you, but are not YOU. This difference is critical to begin to develop the ability to plough on in the face of adversity. Know that the feelings may keep coming back. That is okay. Each time, welcome them like guests – for they are teaching you something about yourself. They tell you how much you care about that job you didn’t get, about that relationship that you lost, about the friend that left you – it tells you that you have the capacity to feel. Accept these feelings – time and again – and allow them to just be. Breath if its gets too hard. And then, you will notice a change in the energy. The feelings dissipate. The energy shifts. Then, start strategizing. Bring in the mind. Analyze your errors. Understand how you can improve. Make a plan to become better, work harder, smarter and discipline yourself. Then head out to the world and try again. This is the Hero’s Journey. A Hero is one who accepts whatever happens in oneself and takes responsibility for one’s state of emotions.
With this technique and approach in mind, we are equipped to handle all disappointments. The external situations start to loosen their grip on us, for we know how to handle them internally. Slowly, we start developing the sense of “what we want”. That gives us the power to shape our destinies. This is true power – a freedom from the grip of the external world. Then, we have the faith, the trust that no matter what happens, I will survive. I shall push on. This is optimism that each one of us must develop.