An elephant sitting on a tree branch

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

It’s one of those basic motivational proverbs that we grew up with.

After all, failure is just a part of the journey, right?

But how many times should you try before you have to accept that either failure is your thing in life – or you’re flogging a dead horse?

Resilience. Persistence. Perseverance. 

They’re all grand words that motivational speakers, evangelical pastors and life coaches love to talk about. After all, they are positive, feel-good words.

They point us toward a higher purpose and a grander plan. They feel like they’re at the core of the human desire to be greater than the sum of our parts.

And they have been really heavily misused to gaslight us into thinking that everything is our fault – because we weren’t persistent enough, or didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t pray sincerely enough.

And frankly, I’m tired of this manipulative coach-talk.

But isn’t it all a learning experience?

In the name of persistence, I studied for eight years in a field that I hated and ended up working in for less than three years before I had a breakdown. A breakdown at the age of 25.

Eight years of full-time study, multiple placements in multiple states, a career of status ahead of me. And here I was at just 25 years old having panic attacks and feeling like I had wasted my entire life.

And sure, it was a learning experience. There were some things that I have carried forward to today as learnings and experiences. But not enough to account for eight years of study and another couple of years in practice.

I can repeat back all the motivational mantras in the world about lifetime learning, life experience and the importance of seeing things through. But none of that will give me back ten and a half years of doing something I hated.

So why did I do it?

I was a very optimistic and talented kid. Good at school Good at sport. Good at pretty much everything I took my hand to. My issue was with sticking to things. I’d start something, get great at it really quickly, then lose interest.

And over twelve years of schooling and a tonne of teachers who saw my potential, I was trained to think the way most of us are: Work hard, try hard, keep trying, stick with things and you will succeed. And success will make you happy.

But I wasn’t a happy teenager. And by 25 I was a mental wreck.

So what’s going wrong here?

There is such a thing as toxic positivity.

I am a positive guy. I have always been an optimist.

But I have had my moments where my positivity has been toxic.

What is toxic positivity? Toxic positivity is the pressure to only display positive emotions, suppressing any negative emotions, feelings, reactions, or experiences. 

At its worst, it invalidates human experience and can lead to trauma, isolation, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

And it’s rampant in life coaching, leadership “experts” and LinkedIn influencers.

Toxic positivity would tell us to go hard for our dreams, manifest our desires and if we don’t see any results, it’s because we’re not positive enough, manifesting enough, praying enough or being persistent enough.

It’s the ultimate form of self-gaslighting.

And when enabled by an authority figure in your life, like a coach or advisor, it takes root as a kind of mental compulsion.

So what’s the alternative?

Introducing Optimistic Realism

I completely made this up based on my own experience with toxic positivity.

It’s positive and optimistic. But it looks at all sides of a situation.

The trouble with pathological positivity is that it seeks to validate itself constantly. And that’s because the cognitive dissonance between what you believe and what you’re seeing is hard to break through without some serious life-long training in your thinking.

Religion can often work this way. You are expected to maintain a belief in a god that you can’t see, can’t directly experience and doesn’t seem to answer your prayers, except in a vague maybe/maybe not way. So you build a thing called “faith” over a lifetime that reinforces every coincidence into validation of that faith and then ignores everything that doesn’t match what that faith says should be happening. 

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a person. It gives context and meaning to the majority of people on the planet.

My view on Optimistic Realism is more about:

  1. Maintaining an optimistic view of the world and your place in it
  2. Knowing that things won’t always go your way
  3. Reading patterns and experiences to better understand your journey
  4. Making informed decisions on what to do next

It allows us to not only be positive and optimistic, but to also make decisions based on what’s real and reasonable, rather than hoping that some supernatural being or a vague and unprovable universal flow of fuzziness can make the decision for us so that we can avoid feeling bad when things don’t go our way.

We can lose, feel the loss, learn from it and then make a decision about what to do next.

And honestly, that feels a whole lot better to me than gaslighting myself into another eight years of doing something I hate.

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