The Fire of Optimism

Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always

If you are looking for all of the things that are wrong in the world today, you've come to the wrong place. 


I can redirect you.  Pick up any newspaper, turn on any radio, TV channel, or go online. The bad news is there, waiting for you. 

My message today is about something quite different - optimism. 

It's an attitude that seems in short supply right now, so we need to get busy and feed the fire.

What is Optimism?

Optimism is defined as "hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something".

Given the state of the world, this attitude requires a certain mental toughness to uphold each and every day. 

It is, however, a necessary mindset if we are to realize our dreams, overturn our nightmares, and make our homes, workplaces, communities and countries better. 

Try and picture a leader, entrepreneur, social activist, artist or parent without optimism. They would likely have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning to greet the day. Nor would they be effective in leading, motivating, creating, disrupting or mentoring other people.

Winston Churchill said:  

"The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty."

Of course, everyone must face the experience of reversal and breakdown. Being optimistic doesn't mean we bypass disappointment and difficulty. That's Pollyannaism. 

Your outlook makes a big difference, especially when there are difficulties. 

Thoughts, feelings and actions are generative. Getting back up when you have been knocked down again and again is also a difference maker. 

Nothing has ever been gained by giving up hope. Not long ago, someone did the impossible on the wings of a simple phrase: "Yes We Can." That was leadership rooted in optimism.

Five Practices to Feed the Fire

There are five ways you can feed optimism:

1. See the future as your friend

A while ago, I went through a very difficult period professionally and personally. My mentor and teaching partner died unexpectedly. 

My mantra throughout the period was a piece of advice she gave me years before during another time of difficulty: "See the future as your friend."

Seeing the future as sheer possibility opens up a different paradigm, one that asks you to be open, trusting and proactive. 

Seeing possibilities in situations and people, rather than just the barriers and restrictions, calls forward your best self. 

Paul Alofs recently retired as President and CEO of the Princess Margaret Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Princess Margaret Cancer Center. The Princess Margaret Cancer Center is one of the top five cancer research centers in the world.  

Five years ago I watched Paul make an audacious promise: he and his team would raise one billion dollars for cancer research. 

That's right. One billion dollars.  

Everyone at the press conference laughed when a young girl gave Paul a small donation to kick off the campaign. Paul didn't laugh. He did the math.  

Five years later, Paul made good on his audacious promise. That took incredible optimism. Find out more at

Don't like the direction your business is headed? Change it. Don't like the dynamics in your family. Change them. Don't like your elected officials? Vote them out of office.

2. Whatever you can face you can handle

Whatever you can face you handle. Otherwise it wouldn't be there. This phrase reminds you to stay in your power and not let fear win the day. 

When you face fear, you must call on the inner resources of self-trust, courage and resiliency. These powers support you to meet challenges from a place of confidence over anxiety.

Sometimes the world around us looks scary. It is easy to fall prey to the notion the problems of the world are so much bigger than we are, that we don't matter. 

But quitting because we are afraid can cause even more harm. We become complicit by allowing the conditions we oppose to go unchecked. That is where we turn against ourselves and descend into resignation and cynicism.

Eleanor Roosevelt suggested:

"You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 
'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along."

Several years ago, Dr. Samantha Nutt, a family physician in Toronto, was seized by a nightmare. 

A humanitarian volunteer experience in Somalia in 1995 convinced her to do something about the plight of children living in war zones. Her mission was "to foster hope and dignity in the lives of children overcoming conflict in some of the most challenging humanitarian environments." 

Sam started War Child in North America, a non-profit humanitarian organization and devoted herself to a radical vision that war can be "undone". 

Today, War Child is working around the world to advance and defend child rights, reduce poverty, and educate children. Find out more at

3. You are overmatched for the circumstances

In my workshops, I ask people to do an inventory of their gifts, talents, character qualities, skills, knowledge, resourcefulness and accomplishments. 

At first, I am greeted with a range of reactions: some people look puzzled, some panic, others are curious. 

After a few minutes of quiet reflection, most people can find at least twenty qualities. With some more time, that list of twenty has doubled. Before too much longer, there are fifty or more!

What we don't really understand about ourselves is we are all carry a unique set of gifts designed for a singular journey through life. No two people are ever made the same way, even though we may share common experiences. 

You have at least five hundred gifts that you can call on at any time. The first set of these gifts we already know and use every day. We demonstrate mastery applying them.  The second set, we develop through practice. Then there is a mysterious third set; these only emerge in the face of a challenge.

People always carry far more resources than any situation requires. You are overmatched for any experience.

Al Etmanski embodies optimism. He is a community organizer, social entrepreneur and best-selling author. He has devoted his life to advocating for people with disabilities and their families. 

Al has been described as a "social inventor who specializes in finding innovative non-governmental solutions to social problems." Etmanski believes that everyone's gifts are meaningful and important: 

"After decades of community organizing I've learned that extraordinary acts are not reserved for the special few and that everyone's actions are necessary to transform our world. The vast majority of people want to make the world a better place. Magnificence occurs when we sprinkle our work with beauty and love. I am optimistic about what we can do together."

You can find out more about Al's work at

4. Expect difficulty

Today's world is a difficult place. It is easy to feel victimized by other people, institutions and events. Sometimes you wonder why everything has to be so hard?

I've worked for thirty years helping people try to make change. In that time I've come to accept that change making is hard work. It is full of difficulty, resistance and conflict. 

To make change sustainable takes ongoing commitment. Commitment means to engage your mind, heart, creative fire and will behind a cause, objective or goal. You recognize that there will be wins and losses but real success comes from a sustained pursuit of what's most important to your life.

Nietzsche wrote:

"The essential thing in heaven and earth is...that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living."

Some things in life are not easily won. They require the long game to be delivered. To endure that long obedience in the same direction requires optimism.

Carolyn Acker embodies what a long apprenticeship in the same direction can accomplish. She founded Pathways to Education, Canada. It is an initiative that provides at-risk, disadvantaged high school students with the support necessary to graduate. Under her leadership, the Pathways program lowered the dropout rate in Regent Park, a Toronto low income, multi-cultural, inner-city community from 56% to 11%.

In addition, Pathways has increased post-secondary attendance from twenty per cent to eighty per cent. Before her retirement, she led the successful replication of the Pathways program in five other Canadian communities.

Carolyn is a passionate advocate for poverty reduction through education. She grew up poor. As a result, she understands the importance of education in breaking the cycle of poverty.

Carolyn started out as a nurse. But it was as Executive Director of the Regent Park Health Center that she and Director Norman Rowen, founded the Pathways program. Vexed by the high school dropout rate, they tackled the problem head on.

Carolyn writes:

"Shifting the lens from a singular focus on the school environment, to a broader focus on the community as a whole, inclusive of the schools, became a driving force behind the design of the Pathways program."

You can learn more about Carolyn and Pathways to Education at

5. Feed the Fire

The diet of the mind is another vital element of optimism. Searching for uplifting thoughts, images, exemplars, stories and experiences fuels the fire of optimism. 

Many of us remain unconscious to the fact we are being bombarded daily by an endless stream of "content". We passively consume this material and wonder why we feel lethargic and depressed by modern life. 

Turning off our electronic devices for a period of time everyday would be a good start in finding some solace. 

Meditation is another way we can support optimism. It helps clear the mind and provide moments of peace, an important way to replace hurry with stillness.

Taking a long walk in nature forces us to slow down too. Here we can breathe deeply and rebalance the central nervous system. This practice now has an official name: ecotherapy. The mind, heart and sleep patterns are all made more robust when we spend time in nature daily. 

Rest is also an important way of feeding optimism. Many of us scrape by on four to six hours of sleep a night. Then we wonder why we feel so pessimistic. We're exhausted! 

Getting a good night's sleep should be every optimist's mission. Here is a link to some sleep best practices:

These are just a few ways you can feed the fire of optimism. Please add any and all of your own best practices to the list.

By feeding the fire of optimism we can remain steadfast in our conviction that the world can be a better place because we are in it. This is our time and the choices and actions we take will be the difference maker. 

It has been a tumultuous year on our planet. I hope that 2018 brings more peace, justice, and civility to your world.

I also hope you will harness optimism in support of making our world a much better place than it was this year.

Here's to Happy Holidays to all of you... and to an optimistic New Year.

Posted on January 3, 2018 .