Optimism in the Cycle of Failure

I’m not sure when I realized that I’m a fairly optimistic person. I know I began to identify optimism as an integral part of my outlook on life when it became clear that I was going to be laid off last fall. And when the lay off happened, I had grief but never really lost optimism and confidence.

During that period I was looking for quotes—inspirational, humorous, self-affirming—when I found this one from Helen Keller:

Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope and confidence.

But there are moments when optimism feels like delusion. Moments when I ask, where does this faith in self come from? 

When faced with failure, there is that briefest second when the idea to give up sparks. But then my confidence snuffs it out so unequivocally. Doubt presses in to blow some air to revive the ember; it says, you failed and there is no certainty you will ever succeed. But Optimism, Hope and Confidence punch Doubt squarely in the mouth, so it crumples to the ground. They each take a turn at grinding the already dead spark into the dirt with their heavy boots and then kick Doubt in the stomach a few times, for good measure.

Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots

Yes. I just characterized Optimism, Hope and Confidence as a gang of bullies. Here’s why.

I appreciate the power they evoke, the ability to persevere. But I think there is value in all emotion, even that moment of defeat. I don’t necessarily want to wallow in defeat. But my gut is telling me that it is important to let it happen, that there is value in not shutting it down quickly and completely.

And then Doubt comes back in bruised and playing Devil’s advocate; it says, if you wallow, you could get stuck; better to keep moving forward; don’t look back. Doubt is consistent in its ability to play any and all sides of the field.

So, what’s my point? I believe Helen Keller. I think the gang of Optimism, Hope and Confidence kick ass, sweep past Doubt, carry it along in their wake, and keep me churning forward. I also think that if they do their job too well, then I’m likely missing moments of reflection, moments of connection to others and their struggles, and moments of experience that could inform my own humanity.

Basically, I need to remind myself that failure without reflection, even with optimism, isn’t very likely to lead to great achievement. I believe art, music, dance and writing depend on the full expression of emotions. I may never achieve that full expression. And that’s okay. What I don’t want  is to block myself from it.

I need to remember to tell the gang to go take a break (Go for a smoke out back?). I am allowed to dwell, think, reflect and absorb my failures. I’m allowed to be flawed and wonderful and awful and human. We all are.

image from David Woods, of thunderbird37.com


  • I realized you were a VERY optimistic person about 2 min after I met you. It’s one of the very many things I like about you. :-)

    • Erin Dodge says:

      Awww. Thanks, Asa. I guess I should have realized it back when I won the most spirited cheerleader award in 8th grade.

      And really, I’m not saying being optimistic is bad. I just wonder about missing out on a deeper level of understanding of the human condition.

      I’ve read tons about the healing power of perseverance on disease, and I completely see its value. I just want to be sure I allow myself to value all emotions, even the “bad” ones.

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