This week I had the opportunity to meet with a group of college students who are on academic probation.  There were supposed to be over 20 in the class, and 10 showed up, 5 late.  One of the the things I was struck by initially was how subdued they were, and I suppose I can’t blame them.  The class they are in, on how to succeed in school, meets twice a week in different locations at the college, half the time in a basement computer lab even though they won’t be using the computers.  If they don’t pass this class they are out of the school altogether.  There was something discouraging about the whole setup.

When I asked them how many of them played video games, they all did.  Most of them had played their favorite game as recently as this past week.  And when I went through the room and asked each what they liked playing, I was taken by how for a moment their face would brighten and they’d smile, even make eye contact.  Probably the most memorable moment for me came after I shared with them the statistic that 80% of the time we play a video game we are failing at it, and asked them to think with me about why we can tolerate failure so much in video games yet have so little tolerance of failure in other parts of our lives such as school.  What was different with a video game?

One student, I’ll call him John, raised his hand and said, “I might win.”

What a sad commentary on what education can do to students who don’t fit a certain mold.  Somewhere along the line, John and thousands like him have lost a sense of optimism, a sense that they even have a chance to win at life.  And yet, throughout the one and a half hours I was with these students, every one of them participated, had really interesting comments, argued and engaged with me.  The last holdout was a guy in the back row.  I asked him what he had learned so far today about video games and our discussion.

He sunk a little into his seat, and said, “I’m drawing a blank.”

“Let’s take a minute,” I said, “and let’s assume optimism.  Because you can add something to this discussion.  I know you can.  What have you learned in here today?”

Long pause.

And then he said, “self confidence.”

I should add, and did say to the class then, that we hadn’t even brought up that key concept to academic success yet.  If he hadn’t have added it, we might not have ever gotten it into our discussion.  Each of them had unique ideas, worthwhile ideas, not all of which we agreed with, but ideas nonetheless.

It takes optimism to risk answering a question in class, start a business, go to therapy, or play a video game.  Without optimism we won’t risk trying and failing, and without trying and failing there can be no innovation.

Take a second and think about the world around us.  Is it perfect in every way, or would you like some things to change?  If you think it is perfect we’re done here.

But if you think that the world can be a better place, for people and all sentient beings, then you’re thinking something needs to change.  Maybe you think racism needs to change.  Maybe you think poverty and starvation needs to change.  Maybe you need to be a better parent or partner, or learn more about something in school.  Maybe you want a better job, or want to create a work of art.  Maybe you want to better understand what it all means and how to fit in?  Maybe you want your daughter to have a better life with more respect, maybe you want your son to have a better future.  Maybe you want a war, all war, to stop.

Nothing gets better without change, and risk of failure.  But to risk failure we need to think we can win.  To fail and try again we need to think we could win this time.  Optimism improves resilience and changes our body, according to dozens of studies done by Seligman and other positive psychologists.  And optimism can create a more conducive learning environment.

Optimism, in my opinion is not simple delusion, or a brain defect, as some would say.  Yes, we might fail, but let’s not let that get in the way of making an effort.  Yes there is a lot of suffering and injustice in the world.  We’d better get busy.

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  1. Fantastic post! The majority of my clients are avid gamers and struggle once they graduate from high school and are expected to navigate college on their own. Several gave up after a few months and now gaming is how they spend the majority of their time. It is amazing to see their change in affect when we talk about their current game..they shift from non-engaged to animated, humorous and engaging young men. So curious to see their answer to the tolerating failure question. Thanks again!

  2. Barbara W. Carlton says

    I’d like to follow your blog. Please provide instructions to my non tech self as to how to do so.
    Thank you

    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Barbara, if you enter your email address in the field under “Epically Subscribe.” and welcome!

  3. Interesting…..it came to my attention recently that a very successful business woman was raised by a parent who would ask daily, what did you fail at today? She would say what she failed at. And the parent would reply….terrific. The point being, she tried at something and then would learn for the next time. What a wonderful philosophy when so many of us are ingrained with the belief we need to get it right immediately and we are less than if we don’t.

  4. It takes optimism and frustration tolerance and failure. But it also takes a reassessment of what a win is. I am really good at failing. I’ve consciously practiced at getting back up from falling down so that it’s practically a reflex. But it’s become clear to me, through that very practice, that what is considered winning by the larger definitions imposed upon us, is often wrong, foolish, shortsighted, and not at all in the interest of the person being asked to perform.

    We live in a culture that has perfected shallowness to an art form. Madison avenue has an agenda of keeping everyone 15 years old in terms of what we want for as long as possible. It’s wrong headed and it’s killing us.

    Before we set out to achieve a success, we must be sure we want the right thing in the first place. In cultures where the aged and experienced members are valued for their insight, they are clear that what you want when you are 15 is pretty useless in real terms. Wanting the right thing, defining success correctly, is what makes failure tolerable.

    Games and technology are wonderful. I have a career predicated on my regard for these tools. Nonetheless, they satisfy the same wish that fiction fulfills. The universal order is disturbed and by the agency of the hero, order is restored. Beginning, middle, end. Nice neat package and a welcome break from real life where the disorder is the rule, there is no end in sight, the beginning is murky at best, and the challenges of being alive are persistent, mysterious, and immutable.

    If you were told you have to play video game for the whole of your life with no break and no predictable outcome, where your actions may or may not impact what happens without your knowing whether they are, you would not want to play that game.

    Life is not about outcomes. What we want isn’t necessarily right to want. Neither success nor failure are easy to define except in the rear view mirror with significant perspective. Optimism for living is a different proposition than optimism we gain from the leisure activities that let us out off the treadmill for a while.

  5. Hi Mike, First, I want to thank you for a fabulous workshop at the NASW Symposium! I am now following your blog–and it related to something I was writing for my blog about perseverance and effort. I referred to this post of yours and linked to it. The url is: http://www.newleafcoachingandtraining.com/blog-the-positive-spirit.html
    I hope it is ok to give the url. If not, you may delete. Thanks!

  6. Hi Mike! I shot you an email but also wanted to reiterate a thank you for sharing this experience! We cited the post as an inspiration for a DailyHap article here: http://dailyhap.com/articles/what-did-you-fail-at-today … thanks again!

  7. Powerful words & a touching example.
    Practical, compassionate, supportive, insightful, practical. Thank you.
    http:// http://www.resultsazwell.com

  8. Perfectly said. You can be a good guide, role model and someone who can lead. I was inspired by your article and believe that optimism plays a very big role in success and happiness.

  9. Like they say, failure is essential and must be experienced by a person before he can appreciate success. When you lose or get disappointed, never get stuck up or be contented. Don’t lose hope because these negative experiences are the ones that make us stronger. We will be become a better individual through our failures. Optimism is a key ingredient to success and improvement.

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