27 May 2020

I thought I was an eternal optimist – ha!

It started as a throwaway line, a casual conversation thing…

Before Christmas I was with my son Guy and his partner Becca, who had prepared a lovely meal, and reflecting on 2019. I was saying how tough it had been having five surgeries in 12 months and I stated at the end, “but of course I’m an eternal optimist”. When I said that I totally believed it.

But no. My wife Kate interjects with an incredulous look on her face saying, “no, you’re not”, and I’m more than a little miffed with her reaction. I chose to just move on at the time thinking that it was a bit rude and unpleasant, but that’s the end of the subject.

However, three weeks later Kate and I are having a conversation with Catherine van der Meulen and her partner James Nilson, while waiting for an outdoor movie to start. Cath asks me, “how was your year Harv?” So off I go again and say 2019 was a tough year due to surgeries etc, however, I am an eternal optimist…etc, and bugger me – I get corrected again. This time more forcefully, “No, you are not an eternal optimist!”, by my bloody wife.

Again, I was a little embarrassed and slightly pissed at this rebuke, however I realised this was completely out of character to be such a …… and I needed to have this conversation out in the open as soon as possible. At this point I thought Kate needed to get her point of view corrected. I’m good like that!

So, the next morning over breakfast, deep breath, and I ask, “what’s with this, ‘I’m not an eternal optimist thing?’”

Kate expressed very forthrightly, that what she has had to endure for the past few years has been anything but living with this mythical eternal optimist, and that at numerous times I have been bloody hard to live with, given my depths of despair. She acknowledged that living with continual pain is tough, but really, what the hell was I thinking talking like that? Gentle wee soul that she is – I was totally taken by surprise. However, I was listening, trying that curiosity thing, and trying to be a little more open minded, just.

The conversation continued over the next few days and I started to reflect on what Kate has had to put up with while I waited for surgery, and then went through it as well. It was a cathartic process for Kate – me, not so much.

The persona of being an ‘eternal optimist’ was something I took on as a kid. This was my role as the youngest in a family that had gone through some tough times, especially when my older sisters buggered off overseas when I was 14 years old. It was very much part of my chosen identity – be a positive and optimistic son to help my parents when they were not coping. It was a very strong belief that I had of myself, and I never doubted it. So to have this challenged was not easy at all. And bugger it, there definitely seemed to be some foundation for Kate’s opinion.

But if I wasn’t an eternal optimist, what was I? There was a need to get this sorted in my wee head. I’m like that too.

More conversation with Kate. Am I a pessimist? Nope she says, “however, you can be pessimistic…”. Yes, I can be. So, I’m not a pessimist, but definitely not an eternal optimist (apparently). Enough talk for me. I start researching the subject which is well written up.

As I investigate, I find out that the last thing I am, or even want to be, is an eternal optimist. They cause bloody havoc and I realise I have worked with some in the past to great detriment, with them being way too gung-ho and not blessed with enough critical thinking. I was going off this made-up identity thing big time.

So, if I’m not an eternal optimist, and not a pessimist – then what am I?

Well maybe a realist? That sounded like a fit for a while. But the problem with this is the title. Realist. I have no idea what is real, or not. It was close but not at all comfortable.

It’s a bit like people who call themselves a futurist. What the hell is a futurist? No one has been able to foretell the future. It’s nonsense.

Anyway, I dropped the research and just let things settle. Then out of nowhere, I’m reading Margaret Heffernan’s book Uncharted, which is a ripper by the way, and I come across the following descriptions.

Heffernan says that psychologists distinguish between two kinds of optimists:

Explainer optimists – who accept that bad news is neither permanent (things can improve), nor universal (there’s good happening somewhere), and

Expectant optimists – who see problems but anticipate improvement; and they have a fighting spirit.

Both are especially productive because optimists are more likely to reach out for help, to collaborate, and tend to trust others – all of which gives them more resilience and capacity than they could ever possess alone.

I had clarity at last. I’m an expectant optimist! Even Kate agrees, so it must be true.

One comment that really stuck with me early on in this investigation was a remark from Kate. She said, “I have no idea what you are on the scale, but you are tenacious.” And that is true too.

So the newly-crowned expectant optimist recently reached out to a number of people seeking help to reframe my thinking and energy. I needed to get my head up and my heart engaged with the opportunities that lie ahead. I got on the Zoom machine and connected with some trusted people. One question from my friend in Melbourne, Andrea De Almeida, was masterful:

Andrea: “What is the big idea you have been sitting on Harv?”

Me: Ummmm – what do you mean?

Andrea: “You are an entrepreneur. You will have an idea you have been sitting on!”

Me: Ummmmm – yes, well I have actually.

Andrea: “Why haven’t you activated it yet?”

Me: Ummmmm – well the timing wasn’t right and I needed a key person to roll it out.

Andrea: “Is the timing right now?”

Me: Yes, it is.

Andrea: “Do you have the key person now to roll it out?”

Me: Yes, I do!

And so, the expectant optimist has his head up again and heart pumping, with a plan coming together to create a more regenerative and entrepreneurial Aotearoa in the near future.

To Andrea I say – thank you!
To Kate – good call!
To everyone else – I’ll keep you posted 😉

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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