Stay positive and others will follow
By Christopher W. Miller, Ph.D. & Noah Miller, M.A.
Pessimism is a most dangerous concept in business. It also happens to be one of the most dangerous concepts in building a community. People are burning up and burning out. They feel responsible and powerless at the same time. Just as in the top lines of middle management we see it on the front lines of community organization. I am referring to the community members who donate their time, but still have a job, family, and a life to manage at the same time. Communities, particularly those in high rental urban centers, are areas of constant change. The community members that stay are mainly focused on holding the line and addressing concerns as they arise. This means that community organizers live multiple worlds at the same time, worlds that often do not have the same goals or priorities. The professional politician determines the direction and does their best to keep the community on that track while often relying on the community to fall in line, or rely of the communities and their organizers to figure out how to follow their lead. One is reminded of an enthusiastic King of Siam (“The King and I”) dictating a letter through Mrs. Anne to President Lincoln saying that the King is sending him 50 male elephants to start an American elephant herd so that Lincoln can win his civil war. Mrs. Anne asks if there should not be some female elephants as well. The king replies ‘you fill in the details, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera’.
Community organizers, like senior middle managers, have become the victims of the “U” shaped organization structure. The boss/politician buys in without working through all the details. Some of the less experienced managers/community planners have jumped on the bandwagons of change without a thought for what it might mean for today’s community and long term residents. Everyone else is at the top of the enthusiasm curve while you, the experienced and front line community organizer or manager, are where the blood settles. You know that the novelty will pass, and the initiative will likely be so targeted it will not touch the whole neighborhood, or maybe the novelty remains for those that don’t have to wrestle the details. Either way it will be up to you to make it all work out in the end. Your job is to save them from themselves.
This is an especially difficult task for community organizers when the enthusiastic meet the entrenched, or worse, the apathetic. Many times, high level and political interests follow the money – grants and low interest loans for state and national priorities. Sometimes, however, a city or town sees the need to revitalize one or more of its smaller communities. The Broken Windows Theory is an excellent description of how quality of life deterioration in a community can lead to pessimism and inaction. A well-organized community is constantly working to maintain itself while also considering how to improve. At times the maintenance can be overwhelming and even thinking of stepping beyond the day to day is beyond daunting.
Change is inevitable, and increasing in both speed and scope, especially when you are content with the status quo. As you float on your sea of change, some catch the wave and others are swept away. Doctor Martin Seligman, in his landmark book,Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (2006), suggests that, whether you are an Olympic athlete or a life insurance agent, optimism may be your life preserver. Seligman, in his research on 15,000 life insurance agents, discovered that those who scored in the top 10% on an optimism scale stayed with their jobs twice as long and made on average twice as much for the company as those with the same skills but in the bottom third of optimism scorers.
Why some float and others sink is conceptually simple and operationally complex…Pollyanna was right. Community organizers, like managers, who are optimistic succeed more often than those who are not. This does not mean that you don’t work your tail off. After all, “dreams come true for those who work while they dream”.
What can you do to bring optimism to the community?
“My mother told me to smile at the mirror every morning. Regardless of how lousy or difficult the day looks; by the time I have made it through my morning ritual with this stupid grin on my face, I feel better. I’m ready to handle the worst the world can dish out with a sense of humor,” reports a lawyer friend of ours, now a Senior Director of Training and Development at one of the world’s largest insurance companies. Her “stupid grin” prepares her to cope. Coping is the ability to execute key tasks even when you don’t feel like it. We call this optimism–looking for the silver lining, and if no silver lining can be found, then at least a piece of humor. Just like Pollyanna. Here are some beginning ideas that are simple but true.
- Accept responsibility for happiness in a small corner of your world. Commit an act of unreasoned kindness.
- Take a minute to meditate, to think, to be with yourself. Sit in your car for an extra 30 seconds and focus yourself.
- Forgive the trespassers who trespass against you. You have bigger fish to fry. Don’t fight in a burning house.
- Fill your world with toys, happy face buttons, puppy dogs and fluffy kitty cats. There are no grown-ups. We are all pretending.
- If you can’t sleep, get up. Build a plan for you and your network. The best plans have been built between 2:30 and 4:30 a.m.
- Dreams do come true for those who work while they dream. Put energy into your long-term development plan.
Optimism is not blind. Optimism in the community organization is the experience to understand the complexity of the challenge and the will and determination to solve the puzzle one piece at a time. Optimism is the ability to learn from each failure and celebrate each success. We do not have all the answers to the big issues you face in today’s high-pressure and fast-paced world. We are, however, fellow travelers. To end with my favorite quote; “To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
This article is an adaptation of an article written by Christoper W. Miller and Gary C. Graziano for publication in B2B magazine’s December 2005 edition.