Relentless Optimism

Most people who have spent time with me have noticed my “Relentless Optimism” stickers. There’s one on my laptop, one on my phone, and one on my water bottle–and usually a small stash of them in my bag that I hand out to people. In fact, I gave a few to some folks at the the AISL conference, and they encouraged me to share what I’d written about relentless optimism with the readers of the AISL blog.

People often ask me where my motto of Relentless Optimism came from, and what it means. I wish I had some grand origin story to share. I wish I could point to some major life event, some epiphany, some moment of insight that came after intense struggle or deep self-reflection. But no. All I can point to is a status update on Facebook.

I don’t know why that phrase came into my head. I don’t why it came at that moment. But as little as I understand about how I came up with that phrase, I am even more baffled by how and why it caught on. Very few people reacted to it on Facebook, but the next day at school a colleague looked at me and said, “Relentless.” And I said, “Relentless.” And then it took on a life of its own.

I started having text exchanges that looked like this:

I’d also get one word, all caps emails.

These texts and emails came at seemingly random moments, but it was also exactly when I needed to hear it. It was a challenging time at my school, and the days were long and the work was draining, but we were in it together.

I made buttons and handed them out. Initially I ordered 20, figuring I’d probably have some leftover. A week later I ordered 100 more because I’d had so many requests.  

And while walking across campus I would often hear, in the distance, someone yelling “Relentless!” I had, completely by accident, started a movement.

It was a weird and wonderful time in my life.

But the more people that shouted it, and the more it spread, the more I got the question:

But what does relentless optimism mean?

It’s a fair question, and one I’m never quite sure how to answer. I have a complicated relationship with optimism. For most of my life I described myself as a “realist”, which is what cynics call themselves when they don’t want to own up to being cynics.

Optimism does not come naturally to me, which is why it sometimes surprises me that that’s the word people focus on when they see the sticker.

I focus on the word relentless. There’s a reason it’s on there twice.

“Relentless” can, as adjectives go, get a bad reputation. It’s connotation is something or someone that is harsh, inflexible, unforgiving.

A relentless enemy.
The relentless heat of the desert.
The relentless beat of the drums

Of course, when I went to look up some more usage examples I found this, which undermines my larger point, but was too delightful not to share. I like to think I’m doing my part to change the connotation of the word relentless

Relentless optimism is, for me, a particular kind of optimism. It’s an optimism that is deliberately and consciously chosen. It’s an optimism that is unyielding, even when the situation at hand might make it easy to succumb to “realism.” It’s the optimism you find deep within yourself when you’re not sure how you got where you are, and you’re holding on for dear life.

There is a fair amount of research pointing to the idea that humans are hard-wired for optimism–to believe that everything’s going to turn out okay for us.

We are also, however, prone to optimism bias–a tendency to underestimate the likelihood that we will experience negative consequences as a result of our actions. Optimism bias leads you to believe that nothing bad could possibly happen to you, no matter what you do. Over a decade of working in schools has provided me with plenty of examples of the pitfalls of optimism bias, but the one that sticks out in my memory is the student who decided to dunk a basketball by jumping off a chair. Because what could possibly go wrong. Besides, of course, breaking both his arms. The  student in question (an advisee of mine from a previous school) would want me to point out that he did, in fact, make the basket.

But as we get older, we are less optimistic. We have more evidence that things don’t always turn out well (though research indicates that as we get even older, we get optimistic again–perhaps because even though things haven’t always worked out, we know we can survive setbacks).

This is where relentless comes in. When our innate optimism wanes, being optimistic requires making a choice, and being unyielding in that choice.

And the interesting thing is, by choosing optimism and priming ourselves to expect good results, we actually make it more likely that we’ll recognize bad ones and be able to adjust accordingly. We’re more likely to notice it than “realists” (who are sort of expecting things to go poorly).

Because relentless optimism is not just about believing that something will turn out well–it’s about doing the work necessary to make it turn out well. The relentlessness is how we turn our optimism into results, and—more importantly– how we avoid the pitfalls of optimism bias.

This tree, for me, is the arboreal embodiment of the kind of relentless I’m thinking about when I think about relentless optimism. It was struck by lightning, and split into multiple pieces. But before it could be chopped up and carted away, it started growing again. Not in the way it originally planned, not in the way anyone expected it to. But it grew.

There are times when the challenges seem insurmountable, when we have been felled by powers beyond our control. But we find a new and different way to grow.

Relentless optimism is about believing in (and working for) the possibility of change despite evidence that would lead you to believe that change isn’t possible. It’s about believing that we’re all in this (whatever “this” is) together. It’s about moving forward, even when moving forward is frustrating and difficult and overwhelming and seemingly pointless because it feels like you’ve never gotten anywhere before (or even lost ground).

If you don’t try, you are almost guaranteed to feel disappointed. If you try, and things don’t work the way you wanted them to, you might still feel disappointed, but at least you’ll know you tried. It can be easy–and comfortable–to succumb to negativity and defeatism. Relentless optimism involves risk; it can mean working without a net. It might not feel safe, but it’s exhilarating.

And I want to be clear: relentless optimism does not mean I don’t have bad days. It does not mean I never get frustrated and complain.

It means I take the moment to vent, and then I start looking for solutions. It means I find people who share my frustrations, and we figure out how to keep moving forward together.

I will encounter challenges beyond my abilities, and I will develop new skills.
I will hit roadblocks, but I will find another path.
I will be defeated, and I will get up again.

This motto is both affirmation, and aspiration.

Being optimistic (and being relentless) is a choice. It’s not always the easy one. But the more often and more deliberately I make it, the easier and more powerful it gets. And I love watching people around me make that choice, too.

This relentless optimism movement I accidentally founded gave me something I never could have anticipated—it helped me build a community. Because the power of relentless optimism is not that I believe in it. The power is that I have surrounded myself with other people who believe in it, too. I still gets those texts that are just the word “relentless” in all caps. I still send out stickers and buttons, and friends send me pictures of where they’ve put them. The real power of yelling “relentless” is that I know I’m not in this alone.

Because as important as it is to find something that energizes you, it’s even more important to find the people who share your vision and support you.

We need that passion, and we need that community to sustain us through the Journey.

At some point, without me even really noticing it was happening, my love of “Don’t’ Stop Believin’” went from ironic to real, true, and pure. And that’s when I knew I was no longer a realist. I am a relentless optimist.


17 thoughts on “Relentless Optimism

  1. “It means I find people who share my frustrations, and we figure out how to keep moving forward together.”

    Love it! Thank you 🙂

  2. OMG, yessssssss!!!! Little did I realize there was a life motto for my personal philosophy. We need t-shirts as well as stickers!!!

  3. As soon as I read your post, I put up new posters in the library with your motto, phrase and attribution. The phrase “Relentless Optimism” is circulating around the school, and students and faculty are asking me who you are. My response is a wise librarian. Thank you for a bold solution for this stressful time of year.

  4. It seems that relentless optimism is just what we *all* need right now. Thanks for expressing it so well, Sara! I’m going to share this with friends and family too!

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