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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