*Image above not really a propos of today’s post, but I couldn’t stop staring at the gorgeous photo above via Danielle Frankel’s bridal collection, and the model seemed appropriately introspective, so here we are.
When Mr. Magpie and I were running our technology business, we worked out of 1871, a co-working space and start-up incubator in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. We participated in countless events and programs there and so had multiple occasions to cross paths with and attend various talks by its CEO, Howard Tullman, a serial entrepreneur and investor himself. One of the sentiments he repeated across those interactions was: “Pessimism is always cooler. Be different.” The message was that it can be harder, and more vulnerable and suspect, to be ambitiously optimistic. And that there is something lazy and self-aware about pessimism: yes, casting doubt or pointing out flaws can project discretion, hard-earned apathy, and even intelligence, all while protecting oneself from the likelihood of failure. But it is a pose, an inertia. (Sartre practically branded the affectation.) To do the thing — to muster the optimism required of any new venture, new dalliance, new relationship, new foray — demands emotional output that far outweighs the negligible effort of saying “Nah, that won’t work.”
I wonder sometimes if he issued this pronouncement as a matter of good business: he was, after all, on the hook for driving memberships at 1871, and encouraging us starry-eyed entrepreneurs to dare to think big and stay positive was one way to discourage us from throwing in the towel on our various endeavors and, in turn, discontinuing our memberships.
But I must say that the notion has stuck with me, emerging on more frequent occasion than I’d have anticipated.
Like when I tuned into the HBO “Selena + Chef” episode I mentioned two weeks ago, where a bright-eyed and gleeful Jose Andres talks lovingly to his ingredients and celebrates, well, everything while dancing his way through a shortcut Spanish omelette-souffle. His joie de vivre was contagious: I couldn’t help but smile, and I found myself waxing poetic. “You just don’t see people express such positivity or optimism that often. I love it,” I told Mr. Magpie.
Or when Mr. Magpie and I occasionally, and with jocular tenderness, remind one another to exercise a “yes, and” mentality, whether we’re running through the options for dinner delivery or deliberating over a parenting matter. The slogan is hangover from a training I had the opportunity to participate in years ago at a retreat for non-profit leaders: a comedian ran us through a series of exercises, one of which was to practice the principle of “yes, and” — a core tenet of sketch/stand-up comedy in which performers affirm and build on the pronouncements of their colleagues. So if John says: “Oh my gosh, I just found a dead mouse!”, Judy must say: “Yes, and it’s starting to smell.” In so doing, she validates the work of John and keeps the narrative moving, generating new opportunities for plot development and comedy. I can’t tell you how often, after the training, I would observe colleagues (and sometimes myself!) handily throwing shade or negating or nit-picking at ideas rather than operating in a “yes, and” headspace to move towards a solution. It is easier and cooler to be the pessimist in the room, telling everyone why XYZ won’t work. (“Thinking is difficult,” wrote Carl Jung, “that’s why most people judge.”)
More recently, I had the opportunity to listen to a group of mothers discuss their experiences with parenting in the context of this pandemic. There were some interesting experiences, tips, and suggestions circulated, and then one mother cleared her throat, laughed, and somewhat pointedly stated that, unlike the rest of the mothers that had previously spoken, she was going to “keep it real” and admit that everything was (to summarize and borrow the words of Alexander): “horrible, no-good, and very-bad.” I knew how she felt. I have experienced the same exhaustion and frustration at various points in this pandemic. I have struggled. I have wondered how other parents are making it all look so easy. And sometimes it is healthful and helpful to say: “This is really hard” among peers. In fact, we’ve done it here on this blog many times in meaningful moments of catharsis. But her tone — the way she chuckled to herself and told us she wasn’t going to sugarcoat or kumbaya her way out of the reality of things — felt like a reproach.
I’ve been wondering about this interaction and about the lines between pessimism and keeping it real and optimism and performance and denial. It’s a spectrum, isn’t it? And it’s hard to tell where people fall along it, and why. Perhaps that mom the other day wasn’t a pessimist — perhaps she was just having a day and not in the mood to be told about the small and winning ways people were making lemonade out of lemons. We’ve all been there. (Remember? The play-doh? AHHHH. If I’d been asked about parenting in the aftermath of that afternoon, I would also have been snappy.) Maybe her admission was a relief for other mothers on the call. “Ah, phew, so I’m not alone,” they might have thought.
But maybe it achieved the inverse. Maybe it brought the mood down. Maybe it made other mothers feel smaller, less secure, too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Maybe it made them feel foolish, or desolate. Of course, it was not that woman’s job to support the mental wellness of a group of strangers. She was, I have to imagine, speaking her truth, or some version of it. But there we were: a group of women exchanging experiences, and the mood suddenly curdled. I didn’t know what to make of it. It was a strange moment where I felt twenty-two things at once.
It did present me with the opportunity to think about where I’d like to fall on the spectrum, though. And the sweet spot for me lives north of “keeping it real,” reaching towards optimism.
How about you? What are your thoughts on “the spectrum” between pessimism and denial?
+Maje is offering an extra 20% off already-discounted pieces, like this ultra-chic longline cardigan. Love the sporty athletic stripe trim! There is a mom in my daughter’s school pick up line that wears this coat (now heavily discounted as a part of the promotion) frequently and zomg she looks amazing.
+In case you ordered a HHH nap dress with the latest launch (I bought the Nesli in the green trellis), I have it on good authority that this $32 bra (which gets rave reviews on its own) works with the neckline.
+I’m going to be needing this coverup for the summer.
+I can’t stop thinking about this trench coat.
+This mini tech detox really worked for me.
+Would love a piece of investment jewelry from Aurelia Demark — this heart bracelet engraved with the names of my children? Too sweet.
+Love this maternity dress.
+I have one of these alpaca sweaters in a cropped fit — love the newer longer silhouette!
+Just the dreamiest tweed jacket. (The pearl buttons!)
+I never knew I needed a proper sewing box until I laid eyes on this one.
+Cute personalized crayon boxes — good for little gifts / travel. Also cute for stowing miscellaneous toys with small parts/accessories (thinking of some of mini’s Barbie accessories)!
+Thinking I might need to order one of these chain stitch sweatshirts for my little man.
+Love these affordable ribbed leggings for littles in the blue set.