From Chapter 10 “Optimism/Enthusiasm” in Ingredients of Outliers.
The Electricity of Life
One characteristic that, in my experience, goes hand in hand with optimism is enthusiasm. That’s certainly been the case with the optimists I’ve known and it’s true in my life as well. In fact, “enthusiasm” is listed among the synonyms I found for “optimism.”
One of my favorite definitions of enthusiasm came from a man named Gordon Parks. “Enthusiasm,” he wrote, “is the electricity of life. How do you get it? You act enthusiastic until you make it a habit. Enthusiasm is natural; it is being alive, taking the initiative, seeing the importance of what you do, giving it dignity and making what you do important to yourself and to others.”
What was it that made Gordon Parks an enthusiast? It certainly wasn’t due to the conditions under which he was raised. Born in 1912, he was the youngest of fifteen children in a terribly poor black Kansas family. Conditions worsened when his mother died and, at age 15, he left home and dropped out of school. To support himself, he took on whatever job he could find. Thanks to a previously unrecognized musical talent, he taught himself how to play the piano and was hired to do so in a brothel. Later, he found work as, among other jobs, a busboy, waiter, semipro basketball player and big-band singer.
In his 20s, he happened to pick up a discarded magazine, and he was intrigued by the photographs he saw in it. Visiting a pawnshop, he spent $12.50 for a used camera. Thus began a successful career, which included 20 years as a photographer for Life, one of the nation’s most popular magazines.
But Parks’ accomplishments were by no means limited to photography. Turning again to his musical talents, he wrote the music for a ballet and composed a piano concerto. He wrote poems and a number of books, among them a novel titled The Learning Tree, based on his childhood memories. A movie based on the book was released in 1969 and was directed by him. It was the first time a Hollywood film was directed by an African-American.
His second film, Shaft, was released in 1971 and earned an Academy Award for one member of the cast. From then on, Parks would continue his activities in film, writing, and photography. In 1988, in recognition of his accomplishments, he was presented with the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan. Other honors continued to come his way, including more than 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities in the United States and Great Britain. For a one-time high school dropout, Gordon Parks had indeed come a long way.
He’d been only 15 when his mother died, but he’d never forgotten the seed she’d planted that would grow and flourish, continuing to bear fruit right up until his death at age 93. “She would not allow me to complain,” he once said, “about not accomplishing something because I was black. Her attitude was: ‘If a white boy can do it, then you can do it, too—and do it better.’”
Raise Your Sights
Among the best-known proponents of enthusiasm and optimism in American history would almost certainly be Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Dr. Peale, who died in 1993 at age 95, was a prominent New York minister and prolific author. His most popular book, The Power of Positive Thinking¸ was first published by Simon & Schuster in 1952, and over the years has sold some five million copies and has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Two of his other popular books, also published by Simon & Schuster, were The Tough-Minded Optimist (1961) and Enthusiasm Makes the Difference (1967). In the opening chapter of the latter book, he writes, “Enthusiasm can truly make a difference—the difference in how your life will turn out. Consider, for example, the disparity between two current types. One group consists of the optimistic, the cheerful, the hopeful. Since they believe in something, they are the dynamic individuals who set events in motion, always working for the betterment of society, building new enterprises, restructuring old society and creating, hopefully, new worlds.”
Summarizing, he called this group “energetic optimists,” while describing pessimists as “purveyors of gloom.”
For more than a half-century, Dr. Peale served as pastor of New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church, which grew from 600 to more than 5,000 members under his leadership. In 1947, he and his wife Ruth helped launch what was then a four-page leaflet titled Guideposts. Today, it’s among the largest magazines in the nation, with a monthly circulation of more than two million copies.
Norman Vincent Peale’s legacy includes a word he introduced to our language and a challenge to all of us, perhaps most of all, to those who habitually drink from the half-empty glass. “I challenge you,” he said, “to become a possibilitarian. No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see the possibilities—always see them, for they are always there.”
Here’s the take-home: there are people whose day-to-day existence is worse than the worst day of our lives. Yet they soldier on and make the best of their conditions, their illness, their trials, and their suffering. If they can do this, day in and day out—how can the rest of us not approach life with “can do” enthusiasm and unyielding optimism?