Sunday, May 6, 2012

Relentless Optimism

Maybe it was Caine who inspired me. I know this video has made the rounds, but if somehow you haven't seen it, take the time to watch it. And if you have seen it, watch it again (the fun pass really is an incredible deal).

There are other reasons, too, but I'm not going to get into them, as many are deeply personal, and that's not the point of this post.

Whatever it was, a few weeks ago I posted the following status update on Facebook:

It was, to be honest, kind of a lark. But somehow--in a way and for reasons I don't think I'll ever fully understand--the idea of "relentless optimism" caught on at my school. A few colleagues "liked" my status, some mentioned it to me. . . and I also started talking about relentless optimism, and shouting "relentless!" when I felt myself getting pulled into negativity. And then other people did, too.

I accidentally started a movement.

And as the accidental leader of this movement, I feel like I should be able to explain what it's about. So I'm going to try, with the disclaimer that my ideas about relentless optimism are evolving every day--in ways driven largely by conversations I'm having with colleagues and friends.

So what is relentless optimism about?

It's about believing in (and working for) the possibility of change despite evidence to the contrary. It's about believing that we're all in this (whatever "this" is) together. It's about moving forward, even when moving forward is frustrating and difficult and overwhelming and seemingly pointless because it feels like you've never gotten anywhere before (or even lost ground).

It's not about being delusional or ignoring problems. It is so NOT about that. It's easy to just pretend that everything's fine--easier still to simply complain about what's wrong and not do anything about it. Relentless optimism is about hope--and hope makes you vulnerable. It involves the potential of feeling let down--or feeling like you let someone else down. And that can be scary. But it's better than feeling stuck.

If you don't try, you are almost guaranteed to feel disappointed. If you try, and things don't work the way you wanted them to, you might still feel disappointed, but at least you'll know you tried. It can be easy--and comfortable--to succumb to negativity and defeatism. Relentless optimism involves risk; it can mean working without a net. It might not feel safe, but it's exhilarating.

And it's hard. It's exhausting. But it's worth it. And surrounding yourself with people who are on the same page is not just important, it's vital.

Relentless optimism is about being part of a team and being inspired by colleagues. The work we do is hard, but it's easier when you know you're not the only one; one of the best parts of the past few weeks has been when a friend or colleague will (seemingly randomly but it always seems to come at just the right moment) e-mail me or text me the word "Relentless!"

It's important to surround yourself with passionate people; it doesn't even matter if you share the same passions. Passion, like negativity, is contagious. So surround yourself with people who inspire you. And if you can't surround yourself with them (because we all have to deal with people who suck the energy right out of you), make sure you spend time talking with them, focusing on them, finding out what they're doing. It sustains you. Well, I know it sustains me.

The work we do is hard, on every level. Its harder still if we dont believe we can make a difference. And feeling like we're all in this together helps.

It's about, as Plato put it, being kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. And don't forget that "everyone" includes you--be kind to yourself. Indulging in hope is kind to yourself. Surrounding yourself with people who inspire you is kind to yourself. Taking a night off is kind to yourself, and makes the rest of life possible. Acknowledging that you're struggling and asking for help is kind to yourself. 

Relentless optimism is about taking the long view. Even when you feel like you're shouting into the void, you have no idea when the echoes will bounce back. There are projects and ideas that Ive been talking about for what seems like forever, and I was giving up hope on ever getting traction on them. And now, all of a sudden (but not really all of a sudden), things are happening. People are responding. Relationships Ive been cultivating for years are transforming into partnerships.

It's about not waiting for someone else to be the leader. No matter our position, we can all be leaders. There will always be other people and other factors that influence the direction of your work, but to cede all the decision making to other people is neither relentless nor optimistic.

Being optimistic (and being relentless) is a choice. It's not always the easy one. But the more often and more deliberately I make it, the easier and more powerful it gets. And I love watching people around me make that choice, too. Relentless optimism does not happen in a vacuum.

And relentless optimism is about so many other things, too. It's about whatever it needs to be about for you.

And optimism is, maybe, the wrong word. Maybe it's more about relentless momentum (which doesn't really have the same ring to it). Forward motion gives me hope. Acknowledging the struggle is optimistic because it means you believe that something can be done. Believing in the possibility of change is the most optimistic thing I can think of. And if you're in education and you don't believe in the possibility of change, I'd like to kindly ask you to get out my profession.

And, perhaps most importantly, it's about yelling "relentless!" at seemingly random moments. As a reminder to yourself, as a reminder to others, and because it adds a little levity. And levity is important.

Because every movement needs buttons


  1. Relentless! Thank you for writing this article. Just the dose of optmism I needed after a week of budget crunching lay off discussions. I want to be part of the movement. Need some of cains patience.

  2. Relentless! Thank you for writing this article. Just the dose of optmism I needed after a week of budget crunching lay off discussions. I want to be part of the movement. Need some of cains patience.

  3. Relentless! Thank you for writing this article. Just the dose of optmism I needed after a week of budget crunching lay off discussions. I want to be part of the movement. Need some of cains patience.

  4. Read the magazine "Ode for intelligent optimists" for continuing support. Especially the September 2010 issue on Optimism 2.0.
    Or visit the the online community for intelligent optimists:

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  6. Thanks, KMTheLibrarian, for giving me "relentless," a word to spur me forward and a button (at ALA) to remind me when I falter.

    Have you read the Wired follow-up article about Caine's Arcade?

    All educators should follow Caine's father George's lead. Give youth the tools they need to think creatively, to innovate, to make their unique dreams come true.

    And of course, yell "relentless" as often as needed! ;-)