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The Tough-Minded Optimist in the 21st Century


Among some of the most inspiring books I read in my 20s were those written by Norman Vincent Peale, a motivational minister and author, who died in 1993 at the seasoned age of 95. He was most known for writing The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), the precursor of so many books on similar themes, and a foundational piece behind the careers of scores of motivational speakers as well as the self-help/psychology movement. Like many good ideas in their time, his zeal for imparting a fairly revolutionary idea of looking at things from the bright side ensnared him in some controversy with the mental health community at the time. Looking back nearly 60 years, the impact his thinking had on our culture is clearer, and his enthusiasm understandable.

So it's from that perspective, and in my fervent effort to encourage the economics of happiness into our troubled society, that I want to highlight his enthusiastic ideas again today.

Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat, and bringing the tartar sauce! ~ Zig Ziglar

Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat, and bringing the tartar sauce! ~ Zig Ziglar

Zig Ziglar was once asked by an interviewer how he thought positive thinking could allow him to do absolutely anything. "Do you think you could whip Mohammed Ali?", the interviewer asked. In response, Ziglar said, "Even though I was an amateur boxer when I was young, no, I don't think I could whip Mohammed Ali in the ring. That's ridiculous! Positive thinking won't let you do anything .... but it will let you do everything better than negative thinking will."

And that's the point.

One of my favorite Ziglar quotes, by the way, had to do with this subject: "Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat, and bringing along the tartar sauce!"

But back to Peale. One of his later books was one entitled The Tough-Minded Optimist (1961). In it, he discusses how to avoid cynicism and despair in an increasingly difficult and destructive world. Here in 2010, we sometimes forget humankind has always had troubles and challenges; they were not reserved for our generation. As he describes it, being a tough-minded optimist is to see the worst in complete realism - acknowledge and endure it, but to continue to believe in the best. "A tough-minded optimist," Dr. Peale says, "is one who has what it takes to deal creatively with the harsh facts of human existence and still keep on believing in good outcomes."

by Doug Savage (

by Doug Savage (

The payoff of pessimism

Why is it so hard to keep focus on the best, most positive outcomes?  One key realization is that having a negative or pessimistic perspective on life has the effect of drawing one toward that same end.  But further, having an attitude of despair makes it nearly impossible to recognize opportunities, because so much attention is directed toward the anger and frustration of not getting. The act of acknowledging and still looking beyond for solutions and possibilities is a wider-scoped, more highly-developed thinking.

"We get a payoff for our pessimism which keeps us hooked. It creates misery, but serves our demand for control. There is more risk in being open to something positive because we cannot force positive things to occur. We can only be open to them and believe in the possibility. But when we predict the negative and expect only bad things, we squelch many good things or overlook them. Then we say, "I knew it would be this way," and in our misery we satisfy our self-centered craving to be in charge." ~ Touchstones

The Tough-Minded Optimist at work

The Tough-Minded Optimist at work

The ingredients of resilience

This brings me to the topic of resilience. What exactly is resilience?

  • An individual’s positive behavioral adaptation when they encounter adversity, trauma, tragedy or significant amounts of psychological stress.
  • The positive capacity of people to cope with stress and catastrophe
  • A person’s ability to bounce back to homeostasis after a disruption.

Resilience and tough-minded optimism are obviously closely tied. One of the books I've studied recently on this subject is by David Richo titled The Five Things We Cannot Change ... and the Happiness We Find By Embracing Them . In it, Dr. Richo describes the "givens" that are the source of all our troubles, which are:

1. Everything changes and ends.

2. Things do not always go according to plan.

3. Life is not always fair.

4. Pain is a part of life.

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5. People are not loving and loyal all the time.

Simple, right? So then why do we continue to fight them? A resilient, tough-minded person sees life as it really is - face-on, without delusions, and without trying to skip over or circumvent what IS. He deals with things, absorbs and grows from experience (as Karen Salmansohn points out in The Bounce Back Book , "fear of pain is often worse than the pain itself"). He sees "that having to be in control may not be in our best interest: we might upset mighty plans that are afoot on our behalf." Richo further writes, "beings as complex and creative as we are could not be satisfied in a world without soul-stretching givens."

I tackled a similar topic in my previous hub The Economics of Happiness, which dealt with the collective value of our sense of hope and happiness on consumer confidence, and by extension the economy, and the betterment of our world.


Looking for stories!

For years, I subscribed to The Sun magazine, not for their articles, but because of "Reader's Write", a section where they choose a topic, and readers write short letters describing their experience related to that theme. Raw. Authentic.

In the 1950s Edward R. Murrow broadcast a radio series titled "This I Believe", where individuals told about their convictions, their firmly-held beliefs, in order to share their experiences so others could learn from them. More recently is the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, which provide inspirational stories written by individuals about life experiences, in every category imaginable - and I doubt many people have not heard of that series.

This year, I've decided to tackle this topic of toughness and resilience, personally and professionally. I've located a lengthy bibliography of sources for my research, I'm preparing an outline for a class I plan to give this Spring, and I'm considering writing my first non-fiction book on this theme. I don't know whether this will materialize - I'm not in charge of the outcome; only the input.

So I'm interested in hearing your stories of resilience, of overcoming challenges or of circumstances where you or someone you know has had to practice tough-mindedness to deal with a problem. You may leave out names or request to remain anonymous. You're invited either to email your experience to or post in the comment section below.

I'm grateful in your interest and positive thoughts regardless of whether you choose to submit anything.


~ G

"Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by tired and discouraged men who kept on working." ~ Anonymous

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." ~ Oscar Wilde

"Learn from yesterday. Live for today. Hope for tomorrow." ~ Albert Einstein


Gregory S Williams (author) from California on November 24, 2012:

Dan - I own the box set of Rocky movies. Not intellectual fodder, but I recently taught a class about resilience in tough economic times and found myself citing the interchange between Rocky and his son in the last movie as an example of emotional intelligence. I love to be pleasantly surprised, and I have to agree with you; we can withstand far more than we think we can. Thanks for the positive feedback!

Dan Barfield from Gloucestershire, England, UK on November 24, 2012:

Great writing - I am constantly impressed with the plasticity of human consciousness. Our habits of thought guide our decision making processes. We can change ourselves through practice of different thought patterns. Marvelous stuff!

Gregory S Williams (author) from California on May 30, 2012:

I got no strings ...


klarawieck on May 30, 2012:

I know, meanwhile we're all trying to escape from our reality by bringing all that Hollywood drama into our lives, or at the very least to enjoy it on the screen.

Pinocchio - the perfect doll who wanted to be a real boy, while women go under the knife to be perfect dolls. Ugh! It's a never-ending story!

Gregory S Williams (author) from California on May 30, 2012:

That's a wise perspective, Klara. Funny to think someone has to act to be in a "reality"-inspired TV show...

klarawieck on May 30, 2012:

It's called intuition - I knew you'd ask before I read this. :D

I've always thought it strange that famous actors would leave the comforts of their luxurious lifestyles to research a role, taking ordinary jobs, living in ordinary places with ordinary people to know what it feels like. I've always thought we are the lucky ones. We're living the real stories, while they just live in a fantasy world.

Gregory S Williams (author) from California on November 29, 2011:

Niraj - there are so many books on this subject, but I would suggest googling the word "resilience". You'll likely come up with a much more robust list of resources. The books below are a few. I also recommend Left to Tell by Immaculee Ililagabiza and Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. For an even more comprehensive listing, try this: Good luck!

Niraj kasar on November 26, 2011:

hey i really liked your writing i am a student in BITS PILANI -GOA CAMPUS in india and more importantly a person who struggles to perform under pressure and when encountered with new challenging situations hesitates,but i have improved a lot,i would like u to give me reference of some more books related to tough mindedness,i hope u reply soon

Gregory S Williams (author) from California on July 29, 2010:

I'm sorry to hear about your sister, Jennifer. I appreciate your interest in reading and commenting!



Jennifer Lynch from Stowmarket, Suffolk. on July 29, 2010:

I believe that my sister had the book you refer to the Power of Positive Thinking. It was a pre runner to the other self help books which are out today. It is hard to know who much it helped her because she died of cancer at 28 but I like to think that she did embrace the positive while she was here. We have choice whatever our particular circumstances.

Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on May 07, 2010:

It's reciprocal, Gerg. Behavior also follows feelings, don't you think? In essence we create our own reality out of the raw ingredients we find, by the power of our persuasion. I stil love this hub and enjoy rereading it. Thank you.

Gregory S Williams (author) from California on April 21, 2010:

Nellieanna - thank you for the supportive comments. You're right - so much rides on expectations, and those can be more of a choice than we realize. Gordon Livingston in Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart says "feelings follow behavior", and I've come to realize the truth of that.

Best, G

Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on April 21, 2010:

:< - oops - It got away from me with several typos. Oh well - ;>

Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on April 21, 2010:

Thumbs up!! Positive attitude is the difference between joy, indifference and gloom. Resiliance is the byproduct of a positive perception. There are really few things one can't improve by positive expectations & responses, so there can be fewer emotional "snags" or hang-ups to flatten one's bounce-back if one's positivism is real, the difference seeming to be that entertaining irresolvable disappointment for very long or very seriously does flatten one's bounce-back & for no purpose but to stop one’s actual effective ability-to-respond to present needs and opportunities. (i.e.: response-ability)

I'm a rather intuitive optimist I suppose. I appreciate that insight. I’ve never thought about it being “natural” to some more than to others. But, as you say, it is definitely a deliberate choice, whether one tends to it or learns its value by struggle. If it is not supported by conviction, I suspect the intuitive optimists could be easily converted to the worst pessimists going when their experiences do not always prove out their expectations. One must include the awareness of that possibility in one’s optimism and know what it means. I've heard it said that disappointment is the only real defeat. Best to know how to respond to those experiences!

I’ve been a case in point a few times in my life!

What I've needed to add to my personal perspective is firmly pairing it with reality. So I consider myself to be either a realistic optimist or an optimistic realist - or both, as needed. When "bad" things happen - they're real. They don’t disprove one’s joy and positivity. They simply present an opportunity to apply them. One must accept the experience, see it with clarity, fix what can be fixed, and let go of what cannot - or some balance of those two ends of the bell curve of experiences of life.

I definitely admire your focus and your ability to present your views! "Tough-Minded Positivity" is a good and viable attribute. It's needed especially in this brave new century, - which often seems hell-bent on negativity even in its pursuit of fun. So again – thumbs up!!

By the way, the inspirational writers & thinkers which you mention have touched my life, too, among others.

ps - I also firmly believe as you mention that expecting bad things literally "draws" them to one (or one to them!). The converse is also true. Expecting the better things draws them, as well. The subconscious is like a robot, finding the means to fulfill whatever it's programmed to believe is expected! It "does what it's told", in other words. It finds situations an applies one's energies to fulfilling it, with no regard for anything else.. So one's openness to either kind of expectations allows them to find friendly soil to flourish & to establish establish an even more permanent "home" there in one's consciousness!

Gregory S Williams (author) from California on January 28, 2010:

Hanna - thank you for pairing me with Peale! Staying positive and resilient is a struggle and a choice - it's not intuitive for me. I appreciate your kind thoughts...

HealthyHanna from Utah on January 27, 2010:

Very Insightful. I was raised on Norman Vincent Peale pholosophy as well. It has been very interesting to me to see how the majority of the humanity was not. Most think I am a 'different thinker'. I am sorry for those not familiar with people like you and Peale.

Gregory S Williams (author) from California on January 25, 2010:

Thanks Tony - I appreciate the check-in!

Tony McGregor from South Africa on January 25, 2010:

Great piece - thanks, Gerg. Will come back and read it again soon.

Love and peace


Gregory S Williams (author) from California on January 25, 2010:

Thanks Lorraine. I wish I could say continued work toward being resilient is fun, but it's not. You look at the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders, and you know their lives are tough, but they keep smiling and giving.

Good for you that you keep bouncing back! I sincerely appreciate your comment ~


Lorraine on January 25, 2010:

Your piece is inspirational and sobering! Good job! I thank you - sometimes we need someone to remind us of the realities in life. I've bounced back from many "road cave ins" and, while I'm traveling a new road, it's good to be reminded, "I've been through other things and I've survived; I'll succeed again" even though the prospects are not too clear at the moment.

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