Realistic Optimism

Real optimism isn't just expecting good things to happen; it is how you internally explain to yourself the bad things that happen and what you do about them. Everyone is going to suffer bad events.

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Illustration: Sequoia BlankenshipIllustration: Sequoia Blankenship

For myself I am an optimist—it doesn't seem to be much use being anything else.—Sir Winston Churchill

Churchill was arguably one of the greatest men of the Twentieth Century and could easily have been the kind of guy you find sitting next to you in a patrol car heading to a shots fired call. He was in one of the last great cavalry charges, commanded men in trench warfare during WWI, and led his nation and the free world during WWII. But his life was filled with loss and failure, often due to his own risk-taking and self-confidence. Throughout Churchill's life the one trait he continually demonstrated was a clear energy and focus on creating positive futures…winning.

Too many people think being an optimist means saying, "My glass is half full, not half empty!" This is just "Hallmark card" optimism and is exactly what the legendary survivor of the Hanoi Hilton, Adm. James Stockdale, described as the profile of those who didn't survive incarceration and torture. He said they would come into prison saying, "Don’t worry, we'll be out by Christmas!" then "We'll be out by New Year's!" then…well, ultimately, they died of broken hearts.

The real optimists knew they could stop the torture or control only when they got out of prison, but they did little acts of defiance, visualized good times in their lives, and focused on getting through each day and helping their comrades survive, as well. In Adm. Stockdale's words, they faced the brutal facts, while at the same time hoping for change.

Real optimism isn't just expecting good things to happen; it is how you internally explain to yourself the bad things that happen and what you do about them. Everyone is going to suffer bad events. In fact, a researcher once commented that the famous bumper sticker "Shit happens" was actually a very optimistic motto. I agree, as long as you don't finish the thought with, "and it always happens to me."

The optimist just shrugs off the bad and then keeps going. That doesn't mean you don't change what you're doing, but your root attitude doesn't change. Being adaptable is an essential skill for the kind of optimism Adm. Stockdale was talking about: realistic optimism.

Mike Kralicek was shot in the face by a dirtbag with a .357 Magnum in 2004 while an officer with the Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) PD. Recently, he and his wife Carrie visited the Sarge and me and enjoyed some sun and brew by the pool. I have never met a more joyful man. He walks with great difficulty and sometimes drops his food while trying to eat. He drinks beer through a straw and toured the air museum in a wheelchair; he had to be helped in and out of the pool; yet the whole time he had JW, the Sarge, and me laughing constantly.

Mike doesn’t expect to get up tomorrow and run, or ever wear a badge again, but he will get up tomorrow and do the things he enjoys, speak somewhere with his wife about how agencies can better cope with catastrophic injury to officers, post on his Facebook page, find humor in himself and his situation, and live a more full life than the vast majority of people will ever know. What will you do tomorrow? How will you face challenges?

Realistic optimism isn’t a bumper sticker; it is a way of life. In your internal monologue, if something good happens and you say, “I was just lucky,” understand luck is rarely a thing of fate, but rather a return on effort. So acknowledge your effort to yourself. When bad things happen do you say, “OK, what do I need to do?" and start doing it? Or do you say, “This always happens to me!” and feel stymied?

Here is my challenge to you: Read "The Survivors Club" by Ben Sherwood, then monitor your thinking for the next few weeks. The simple truth is if you are a realistic optimist you are more likely to win.

That is why in his shortest speech Churchill rose and said simply, "Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy." That was 1941 when only one of the original eight allies that had opposed Hitler was undefeated: Churchill's England.

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona.


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Officer (Ret.)
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