Every now and then there are heartening events that make us smile and give rise to optimism.
Sarah had an eventful week that proved football is an overloaded word. Starting with her playing goalkeeper for the Vanderbilt Commodores women’s soccer team as they won their first championship in 26 years. Finishing with a late call up to play kicker in the men’s college gridiron team. An opportunity millions of kids can only dream of.
Opportunities go to those who show up.
Romain had a fortunate escape. His racing car crashed through a barrier at 220km/h. Broke in half. Then exploded into flames. 30 seconds later he climbed from the wreckage largely unharmed. Five years ago, such a crash would have certainly claimed his life, but a tenacious race director and some smart engineers combined their efforts to make the sport safer.
Small acts can achieve wonders.
Polly had a dream come true. A young woman with a guitar and a dream, playing to a handful of families in a London park in the rain. The next weekend she found herself performing in a stadium packed with 80,000 people, the opening act for an internationally famous chart-topping band. One of the families from the park knew someone who made it happen.
The kindness of strangers.
Other times we see things that remind us people are complete savages and make us think society is doomed.
A surly teenager, baggy trousers worn low at the back to show off his underpants, jumped the ticket barrier and shouldered through the crowd on the slick station stairs. Knocking an elderly woman flying.
An opportunistic thief, grabbing the fallen lady’s purse from where it landed at the bottom of the staircase.
A wastrel, who snatched an off-duty doctor’s handbag, while she knelt to help the elderly lady.
A self-important officer worker, who stepped over them both to board the train, clucking about how inconsiderate the good samaritan doctor was for not moving the fallen lady out of the way.
An officious policeman, more interested in the doctor’s immigration status than the victim’s injuries.
The overworked doctor. Heading home, after working a double shift at an understaffed hospital. The locally born child of proud immigrants, who had worked hard to provide the opportunities necessary for their daughter to make a career helping others. Shoved. Robbed. Abused. Profiled. All while doing exactly what she was supposed to do.
Living the dream. Just another day in the big city.
What we focus on is a conscious choice. One that we each make for ourselves.
So too is how we choose to act. Conduct ourselves. Whether we live according to our values.
Sandra Bullock once made an astute observation that the only people who look good while having sex are those who know they are being watched. Awareness transforming physical act into performance.
Gone are those comedic “lost in the moment” orgasm faces. Inopportune farts. Pubes caught in teeth. Complaints about lying in the wet spot. No more lazy spooning, flannelette pyjamas, or admonishments to hurry up.
In their place are exaggerated enthusiasm. Pornstar poses. Sexy lingerie.
The focus no longer on the pleasure of the participants, but the performance for the audience.
Once you start to notice it, this type of counterproductive behaviour shows up all around us. Behaviours conflicting with achieving the desired outcome. Signaling rather than doing.
Influencers peddling a “do as I say, not as I do” message.
Office workers mastering in presenteeism rather than productivity.
Relationships focussed on conflict avoidance rather than happiness.
Politicians and C-suite executives delivering self-indulgent buzzword and slogan laden speeches. Many words, little substance. Reacting to sentiment or survey, rather than executing strategy and leading.
In all these cases, stepping back to measure deed rather than word proves instructive. The football player, race director, singer, and doctor all had a dream. Then they showed up and put in the work to make it a possibility. The only guaranteed outcome is that had they not done so, the opportunities would never have come.
Their efforts benefited other people. Inspired them. Entertained them. Healed them. Saved their lives.
2020 has been a challenging year for many of us, with a self-reinforcing narrative of negativity and woe. Even the apparent wins quickly provide the opportunity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Solving the PPE shortage, revealed a world of cronyism and corruption in government procurement.
Developing a vaccine in record time, raised questions about whether corners were cut in haste.
A post-Brexit trade deal with Europe looked near, until rent-seekers sought to line their pockets via “state aid”.
It would be easy to shake our heads in dismay and succumb to despair. Lockdowns. Furloughs. Job losses. Bankruptcies. Tightening of the mortgage market. Challenging trading conditions.
Yet amidst the gloom there have been some remarkable stories that evoke optimism this year.
The development of not one, but three potential COVID vaccines that should restore normalcy in time. Demonstrating what modern medicine is capable of when profit motives and outcomes are aligned.
Starlink’s satellite broadband beta tests suggest a near-term future where fast wireless internet access becomes a reality from anywhere on the planet. A service that should only get cheaper over time as more satellites are added to the constellation.
Workplaces around the world have learned to support remote working. In time, this may help reduce some of the vast geographical inequalities that once concentrated opportunity and wealth in small pockets like the City and Silicon Valley. Brexit and “byte flight” are respectively scattering roles traditionally based in those locations, providing opportunities to a broader talent pool.
Eat Just received regulatory approval to sell chicken meat grown in a lab rather than on a bird. Global hunger is a logistical rather than supply challenge. A science-led approach may help remedy that.
NASA’s Osiris-Rex probe took the first step towards humans one day mining the stars.
These are just a few examples of where ideas that existed only in science fiction novels a few years ago are becoming potentially life-changing realities today.
Imagination combined with science benefiting people on a potentially vast scale.
Scientists and engineers embracing the challenge and doing work that gives rise to optimism.
Two of my all-time favourite tv shows are Star Trek – The Next Generation and The West Wing. Both were well-written adventures of close-knit teams of idealists, who strived to better themselves and make a difference.
One of the recurring themes across both shows was remaining focussed on the things that mattered, while grudgingly accepting that there were some things that were beyond their control or that they could not fix.
In my own life, I have learned similar lessons the hard way: don’t sweat the small stuff, or worry about things beyond my control.
Applying these lessons required developing the ability to make a detached assessment of stimuli. Determining what is important? What is interesting, but irrelevant? What is just noise?
This assessment triages the torrent of distractions clamouring for my attention or seeking my outrage.
It serves as a filter. Freeing up capacity to take an active interest in the things I find value in. Allowing me to shrug off the rest with a passable imitation of my younger son’s infamous “meh” response to things he doesn’t care about.
Which helps me stay focussed.
To curate a sense of optimism about the future.
A conscious choice, but one I am happier for.
Unfortunately, that mindset makes me a pain in the backside to try and manage in the workplace. Or be married to!
Recently I have been struggling. To borrow a phrase from The Accumulator, I had reached a crossroads. The problem was I didn’t much like the look of where any of the paths in front of me led.
I realised that since finishing up my university studies a year or so ago, I hadn’t set myself new goals or interests to pursue. This let me drift aimlessly through the COVID lockdowns, which made the household logistics easier to manage, but has left me feeling restless and unfulfilled at times.
I concluded it was time to set some new challenges and give myself some goals to work towards.
Updating my monthly money spreadsheet this week revealed that my net worth was at record highs, despite five years of semi-retired seasonal working and paying far too much rent in London.
I had put the basics in place, established good financial habits, then largely put things in “set and forget” mode.
With the money side of things taking care of itself, I find myself with a window of opportunity.
Roughly a decade remains before the last of my children flies the nest. That means ten more years of living within easy commuting distance of their schools, and vacationing around their term times and assessment calendars.
Which in turn means I have roughly a decade to play with. My days are tied to London, but my time is free to explore becoming one of those adventurous idealists. To seek out work I find rewarding and benefits people. Like the singer, race director, and doctor at the beginning of our story.
Longer term, I have always wanted to live by the beach. My favourite holidays involve sand, sea, and surf. Being lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean. Starting each day with a walk along the shoreline.
My window of opportunity gives me a decade to figure out how to make that dream a reality. A tangible goal to work towards.
Do I want a permanent year-round home, where I can put down roots and establish a social support network? Some beach towns are fun in the sun, but miserable ghost towns during the winter months.
Or do I want to pursue an endless summer, involving multiple locations?
If so, are those locations the same every year, or are they a form of slow travel?
Once I explore the answers to these questions, the answers to financial questions like whether the numbers work better to rent or buy in each location can then be figured out.
I suspect the answer will involve a combination of all the above. A permanent base with a support network, and some slow travel exploring different locations before old age frailties eventually clip my wings.
Reconciling any of that with my lady wife’s desire to work in the big city until she is in her 90s, her reluctance to take any holidays, and her visceral dislike of hot weather is a challenge for another day!
It has been important to remind myself that drifting and being aimless was a choice. One that had ceased making me happy.
There is an alternative.
To consciously curate a sense of optimism.
To adjust my life balance to indulge my closet idealist a little bit more, and compromise a little bit less.
To apply my abilities towards achieving something that I derive value from and that benefits others. Probably not singing in front of 80,000 people or treating fallen little old ladies. But giving back, doing something rewarding would be a nice change.
Easier said than done of course. Deeds not words will make it happen.
- Abbasi, K. (2020), ‘Covid-19: politicisation, “corruption,” and suppression of science’, The British Medical Journal
- Benson, A. (2020), ‘Formula 1: Romain Grosjean’s escape leaves sport with soul-searching to do’, BBC
- Bishop, C. (2020), ‘A First for Fuller … and for All‘
- Brassil, G.R. (2020), ‘Sarah Fuller, With a Kickoff, Is the First Woman to Play Football in a Power 5 Game’, New York Times
- Bullock, S. (2013), ‘Sandra Bullock’s Sex Tape Tips’, The Graham Norton Show
- Carrington, D. (2020), ‘No-kill, lab-grown meat to go on sale for first time’, The Guardian
- Jones, H. (2020), ‘More than 7,500 finance jobs have left Britain for Europe, EY Brexit tracker’, Reuters
- Koetsier, J. (2020), ‘Starlink Internet From Space: Faster Than 95% Of USA’, Forbes
- Money, P. (2019), ‘Experience: I was a stadium-filling pop star for one night’, The Guardian
- Paramount Television (1987), ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation‘
- Rankin, J. (2020), ‘Brexit talks: why the wrangles over state aid?’, The Guardian
- Schiffer, Z. (2020), ‘Byte flight’, The Verge
- Wall, M. (2020), ‘NASA asteroid probe stows space-rock sample for return to Earth’, Space.com
- Warner Bros (2001), ‘The West Wing‘
- Zhang, S. (2020), ‘The Long Haul of Vaccine Results Is Just Beginning’, The Atlantic