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Heart on sleeves + shovels in hands.

Well, despite all good intentions of writing more frequently throughout the summer, here we are in late July with nary one original post in almost a month. Twenty lashes!

Actually, I’ve been quite busy (although we’re not supposed to say that anymore) with a stimulating roster of meetings, client engagements, and conferences. Yesterday was one example: I had a chance to address the rather wonderful staff of the Nonprofit Technology Network during their summer staff meeting. I discussed a tightly-related group of fascinating topics… er, that is, I kind of rambled around about a loosely-connected set of odds and ends. 

One of the common threads of our discussion was the sense of cynicism that seems to increasingly pervade our culture. Even the most optimistic among us are finding it hard to keep our upper lips stiff. When movies become massacres, political half-truths masquerade as informed debate, and economic conditions don’t appear to be particularly well-conditioned, who can blame us for adopting an attitude of resignation? 

Further, what are we to make of the fact that major corporations appear to have grasped onto the ideas of “impact” and “change” as just one more marketing approach? How should we react when we have behemoth institutions promising to help us “Live Better,” empower our potential, and restore the environments they’ve destroyed? We can excuse ourselves our bouts of skepticism. 

And yet, despite all of that, perhaps more optimism is exactly what we need. As a member of the small constituency of sappy, overly sensitive guys out there, let me argue that in a world of choreographed demagogues and overly-inflated blowhards, perhaps we need a few more people who cry at weddings and sing love songs at the piano, at least to restore some sort of cosmic equilibrium. 

The fact is, it has never been easier — and more socially acceptable — to be a skeptic. Hipster coolness, self-righteous apathy, veiled elitism, and detached cynicism are the new cool. We go through life alone together, commenting and criticizing on everything around us, disappointed but not surprised. 

But for those few of you out there who are still reading, I say this: While everyone is sitting on the bleachers complaining about the game, you may have noticed that no one is actually on the field. With so many leadership opportunities and so few taking advantage of them, there’s no easier time to be a world-changer. 

We’ve got “detached cynicism” covered. What we need are a few more hearts on sleeves and shovels in hands. The personal bravery; the whispered hope; the patient dream; the small optimism; the incremental improvement; the tiny change for the better — I will never believe that any are in vain. 

Happy summer.

Suspending Skepticism: Ignoring Your Inner Ragdoll

Could it be that the biggest part of learning optimism is just figuring out how to suspend skepticism? Is it that simple?

Suspending skepticism seems like an easy thing — a trite comment, really — but I’ve learned that skepticism is so ingrained in most of us that laying it aside is more difficult than we first imagine. From the first time we hear “You’re too big for that chair!” or “Be careful up there!” or the really insidious “Don’t get your hopes up!”, we start assembling a picture of the world that features a tiny ragdoll at the center (that’s us) surrounded by assorted threats, hazards, and disappointments (everything we think, dream, and wonder about).

I’ve become quite a Disney World supporter over the last few days. I’ve written about the superb customer service, the powerful combination of business and artistic vision, and more than anything, the great experience my kids have had at the various parks. But to be honest, I know enough about Disney that I kind of expected all of those things. I expected to see a fun environment produced by a well-run organization.

What I didn’t expect was the impact that Disney would have on me. I’d find myself passing by a ride or theater or walkway. “Nothing too exciting is back there,” my ragdoll voice would say. And I’d start to walk by when invariably a little child’s hand would grab mine and say, “C’mon Dad — puulllleaaaase?”

The first time I sort of rolled my eyes, re-oriented the stroller, and grudgingly followed. “Okay…” I said, which as everyone knows is Dad Code for “I already know that this is a stupendous waste of time, and soon you will learn that too, and then you will understand my incredible power of divination and will listen to me next time.”

But here’s the thing. It was never a waste of time. The concert with Mickey Mouse, the a cappella American folk singers, the 360-degree movie about China — everything was just, well, surprisingly delightful. Just really wonderful.

And what I noticed is that by the second day I stopped using Dad Code with the kids. “Let’s go!” I’d say. “I bet this is really cool!” And by the third day I stopped listening to my own ragdoll. Frankly, I’m not sure I even would have noticed that until yesterday, when we had three people feeling sick and run-down but had to travel home anyway. I heard the rag doll say “This will be awful. This will be a long and horrible day.” But I heard myself say, “We can do this.” And you know what? All things considered, eight hours of travel with six people went flawlessly.

In my book, the greatest thing about Disney World is that it got me to throw my skepticism into the recycling bin. I stopped looking at doors and saying, “There’s nothing interesting in there.” I stopped looking at people and saying, “They are opposed to me.” And I stopped looking in the mirror and saying, “I need to protect the ragdoll.” Instead I started actively walking towards each walkway, filled with excitement about what was coming next.

How effective would I be if I greeted every single encounter of every single day with that optimism and confidence? If we all did?

This is the biggest memory I hope to keep from Disney World. It could be powerful.

Learning Optimism

Dad says, “That sure looks like a big hill.”
Kids say, “It will be really fun!”
Dad says, “It is pretty cold out here for a water ride.”
Kids say, “We’ll dry off in the sun!”
Dad says, “I’m not sure we have time to do this before lunch.”
Kids say, “The line is really short!”
Dad says, “I don’t think you’re going to like it.”
Kids say, “We’re going to love it!”
Kids say, “Can we go on again?”
Dad says, “Yes!!”