Helen Keller: All doers are optimists

Helen Keller“The desire and will to work is optimism itself,” writes Helen Keller in Optimism: An Essay (1903). “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.”

In our world where the gray, 9-5 cubicle represents the antithesis of hope – the promise of dreary, monotonous, dull days to come – we seem to have lost the connection between optimism and work that Keller speaks of. So what was she talking about?

The desire and motivation to work, she says, are fueled by the fundamental belief that you can have an impact; that your efforts mean something and can change the world for the better. You can take fragments of ideas or materials and turn them into something orderly, meaningful.

“The optimist believes, attempts, achieves. He stands always in the sunlight,” she writes. “Some day the wonderful, the inexpressible, arrives and shines upon him, and he is there to welcome it. His soul meets his own and beats a glad march to every new discovery, every fresh victory over difficulties, every addition to human knowledge and happiness.”

Keller says that the doers of the world are all optimists. An example close to her heart: those brave teachers who first taught the deaf and blind proved to a doubtful public that it could be done. She herself would go on to become the first deaf-blind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree, something previously unimaginable.

“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit,” she writes.

And not only is a dedication to work optimistic, but it inspires optimism in those around us. Seeing others do good work reassures us that “the true and the good will stand sure.” Keller observes civilization moving forward thanks to the efforts of such heroic workers, but also the efforts of little guys like herself.

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task,” she writes. “But it is my chief duty and joy to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. It is my service to think how I can best fulfill the demands that each day makes upon me, and to rejoice that others can do what I cannot.”

In my book, the ability to write such a poignant essay is already a great and noble task. Because the lesson is a profound one: when we become demotivated or unengaged in work, it means we’ve become pessimistic. For some reason, we no longer believe that we can change the world. Is it because we don’t think we’ll succeed? Or perhaps we’ve lost the passion for our company’s mission? Either way, we can shift from the difficult question of “Why aren’t I more motivated?” to the simpler question of “What am I pessimistic about?” – and then find a way to rekindle our optimism and step back into the “sunlight.”


One thought on “Helen Keller: All doers are optimists

  1. Its true that doers are optimists. And for some reason, some people think its a good thing to stop you in your path. I think about an annoying waiter at a restaurant my first full day in Berlin. We got to chatting a bit, and I told him I was looking for a job in Berlin. He asked me why Germany, why not stay in Finland, maybe I had better opportunities there. You dont speak German, you cant make in Germany, he said, or words to that effect. I almost told him he was being annoying and to shut up and just bring me the menu. But I was too polite for that. When we came to take my order, I spoke to him in German to show him I could speak it.

    When I mentioned my job search, some people reminded me that there were already many people like me. They mentioned the 20% unemployment rate in the city. Yet I turned it around, so 20% means 80% of the work force is employed. Thats a huge number, isnt it?, I would say. That means there’s good chances in Berlin. Some people did tell me, if you want a job in Berlin, you will find one. I wouldnt say those people were few and far between, but few people were overtly encouraging.

    The whole time, I kept thinking, I will get my job in Berlin and shove it in those peoples faces that said it wasnt possible. I think its my personality, my new-found confidence that makes me optimistic. When I do something, I just do it until it is complete, never stopping to think it might not be possible. Ill leave it to pessimists to do that 😉

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