Start with the Small Wins

What do you do when the hardest part is at the start?

You know what I’m talking about.

Maybe you’re looking at that cursor on your word processor, mocking you as it blinks on and off in the blankness.

Or maybe your mind is whirring at octo-core speeds in the presence of your crush, dismissing conversation starters almost as soon it conceives them in an infinite loop of anxiety.

Or maybe you want to quit smoking and are smoking just one last cigarette–for the hundredth time. 

It’s like when you’re pushing something. Ever notice how when you start to push something, it’ll refuse to budge at first, but it feels like it doesn’t resist as much once you’ve gotten it to move? (Remember the concepts of static friction and kinetic friction from your high school physics classes?) Or in certain chemical reactions, there’s a high energy toll that needs to be paid (technically called activation energy) before the reaction can take place.

A more fun metaphor is when you’re on a roller coaster. Sure, it’s exciting, with the cars going through the twists, turns, and loops at devil-daring speeds. But before that, the cars have to slowly go up the highest peak of the ride, getting pulled up by a heavy chain, each clack-clack of the wheels against the rails building anticipation, excitement, and nervousness among the passengers.

So that’s the way it is with a lot of tasks. A lot of the time, you have to muster enough willpower to start, and from the initial grind, you gather enough mental momentum to power through to the finish.

Still, it doesn’t change the fundamental problem: how can you muster the willpower needed to get through the first hurdle when even that’s really challenging? How do you keep yourself motivated to climb when even base camp seems like an impossible summit?

Simple: don’t even think about base camp.

Think about what comes beforehand, and aim for that. Then aim for the next step. Then the next. And before you know it, you’ll have gotten over the hump.

Speaking in angry, impassioned ebonics, Eric Thomas puts it really well:

You got to go in the future and see it, baby, and then you got to come back in the present… you got to take that big goal, that big dream, that big reality-that’s what I said-you got to take that big reality, and we got to take small steps to make it manageable to make your dreams become a reality.

Think big, dream big, but start small. That’s right, start small. Remember what I told you; start where you are, with what you have, because what you have is plenty.

In the book The Power of Habit, we read about the concept of small wins. Basically, it says that there’s power in acknowledging even little victories:

“Small wins are a steady application of one small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. ” Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny achievements into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

If you’re an amateur, be fair to yourself. Don’t measure yourself against the records of Olympians. Just do what you can today, then do a little more, and a little more after that. Keep telling yourself: “just one more push.” Then make the push, then say “just one more push” again. Gamblers tell themselves that they can quit any time they want; give yourself permission to tell your mind the exact same lie, but channel it towards a productive endeavor.

Technically, every milestone is separated by inches.

Once you realize that, you can get started.

Why More Workers Should Be Astronauts (Figuratively Speaking)

Why More Workers Should Be Astronauts (Figuratively Speaking)

The man in the clip is Robert Zubrin, a staunch advocate for the exploration of Mars. I don’t remember when I saw this video, or how exactly I stumbled upon it; all I remember is how I responded with admiration and sympathy. Here we see a man who grew up with a vision, one that was snatched away, which drove the driven man into becoming an angry man. Carrying a torch whose flame was ignited by betrayal and is sustained by discontent, he fights to regain what he sees humanity has lost: the thirst for exploration. The spirit of wonder.

And the spirit of exploration has not just been lost in the context of space exploration. We see it every day. We see it in the way we choose fast food, the easy, convenient, and readily available foodstuff, rather than discover the joys of cooking (the only way you can every truly “have it your way”, despite what a certain burger brand says). We see it in the way certain fashion brands dominate the local Philippine market, despite their pieces being obviously made for much more temperate climates.

And we see it in the way people choose jobs.

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A lot of us employees have lost that hunger, that almost reckless pursuit of something that we love and can be great at. “Career” has become nothing more than a buzzword, splashed onto resumes, parroted in interviews, all in the hopes of getting a job. The focus is on pay, not promise. Perhaps we are forced to compromise to survive circumstances beyond our control. But sometimes, the circumstances we currently face are not something we actually have to.

Consider the movie Interstellar. In the film’s establishing sequence, we see that humanity is in danger. The earth, its mother for so long, is starting to cross the line from “life-supporting” to “uninhabitable”. Dust storms sweep the land on a regular basis. The staple crops of mankind–wheat, potatoes, rice, and corn–all start to die in succession due to blight. The educational system is pressuring more people to become farmers rather than engineers (not to say that farming is an unimportant career choice, as the movie itself stresses). The dream of space exploration is dismissed as nothing more than a fever dream.

The story moves forward from there, leading the viewers down a path of coincidence and deduction, which concludes with the discovery that the dream is still alive. NASA is not defunct; it’s just gone underground, toiling away, in the background, as quixotic an institution as any you can imagine. On earth, humanity wages a war against extinction; while that war is fought, NASA is engineering a fallback.

And so it is with your job.

Sometimes, you just need to jump ship. Maybe the company is folding, and you can’t be around for the end. Maybe you’re not getting a high enough salary, or maybe the prospects for career growth are weak.

Or maybe it’s just not a good fit for you: you find that you have to contort yourself the cog-shape needed to make the corporate machinery run, and it’s deforming you day by day; you can’t breathe normally; you can’t stretch; you can’t stand; and you can’t stand it.

This is not to say that the automatic reaction should be to escape. Of course, there are still reasons for you to stay and persevere. You still have to fulfill your duties to the company; you cannot simply leave your co-workers hanging; and there may be clients who are counting on you to come through for them. The point is, you should be able to come to a point where you can deliberately launch yourself towards a new stage in your career, and a new opportunity for growth and exploration.

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Of course, not all endeavors end up successful. Not everything is in our control. Sometimes the journey doesn’t end well, and you, the explorer, are stuck in a less-than-ideal situation.

In The Martian, an astronaut is left marooned on Mars. The Red Planet is uninhabitable: no food grows there, the atmosphere cannot support life from Earth, and it seems all circumstances and conditions are conspiring to ensure that he does not survive. However,  through ingenuity and determination, he improvises, conceiving and implementing a survival strategy (growing food) and an exit strategy (reaching out to his fellow astronauts so they can rescue him). I can’t say much more about the film, since I haven’t watched it as of this writing, but that’s the gist.

So that’s what employee-astronauts should do when we end up in a company not suitable for them, but cannot leave it immediately. When they find themselves in that situation, unable to set off on a new leg of their career (whether due to a training bond, financial pressures, or something else), they must rely on our existing skills and talents. If they started their career path right, their skills and talents will be adaptable in most, if not all, of the companies they end up in.  So while you’re in a poor-fit company, make the most of it. Do a bit of terraforming where you can. Survive (and thrive, if possible).

At the same time, keep your options open. Maintain communications with fellow employee-astronauts. Eventually, when the opportunity to leave comes, one may just get a useful referral from one of them and end up in a more habitable place. Of course, as professionals, employee-astronauts should also be prepared to suggest opportunities for others. It’s all about paying it forward.

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One definition of career is “a job or profession that you have been trained for, and which you do for a long period of your life”. A lot of us remember that definition, and we let it shoehorn us into staying in a particular company, or a particular occupation, longer than we really should.

Another definition is “To move forward at high speed, often with minimal control”.

Which sounds more exciting?

Thoughts on Happiness and Cheerdance

Full disclosure: I graduated from UP. You may believe I’m a little biased. That’s possible. But just watch the videos of the routines for yourself, and make up your own mind.

Also, I watched only the top three winners on YouTube. If you think there was a performance that didn’t place but should’ve, feel free to let me know.

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“Ang puso… ialay… sa laban… kapalit ay tagumpay!” (“The heart… should be sacrificed… to the fight… you’ll get victory in return!”)

So goes the SpongeCola song that was part of the UP Pep Squad’s music tracklist.

I watched their routine after seeing the reactions on my Facebook feed: a barrage of posts, seemingly unanimous in their disappointment and outrage. One says in jest, Guys, kain na tayo, tutal nagluto na rin lang.” (“Guys, let’s just eat, after all there’s cooking going on already.”)

I had slept through the cheerdance competition. Well, not really; around 2 PM, we were watching the AlDub kalyeserye with our mother. With the badly cross-dressed men, shoddy lip-syncing, some missed cues and forced ad-libs… not saying I could put a better show on myself, but if we’re being honest, it’s not the best production by any means. However, there are some bits that work for me through sheer irreverent absurdity. And I see how the segment manages to promote values such as “waiting for the right time”, even if it does so through the crackling megaphone of satire. Plus it makes a lot of people happy: who am I to decide how shallow or deep people’s happiness should be?

Like the cheerdance competition. If you really think about it, it’s pure spectacle too: loud music, tight outfits on tight bodies, dance routines, drums and shouting. It would be too easy to quote the Bard here (“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”), though I think he wrote that about life in general, so that would be unfair.

And in total fairness, a lot of the stunts people witness there are quite spectacular, obviously the product of hours upon hours of practice and personal risk. I remember reading once that in the US, cheerleading is actually the most dangerous high school sport, even more so than football with its reliance on padding, mouthguards, and helmets to dull the impact from any collisions that occur. Seeing how high off the ground the UP cheerleaders went during their routine, I have zero trouble believing that.

“Ang puso… ialay… sa laban… kapalit ay tagumpay!”

UP did it again. Invoking national pride through their typical use of OPM, they pull off stunts and lifts that push the limits, swinging and flying and catching one another, grace and courage in full display. The floor dances were high-energy but not messy, engineered to get any audience member fired up. The mashup of Awit ng Kabataan (Anthem of the Youth) and Liwanag sa Dilim (Light in the Darkness) hit me right in the puso (heart); endorphins triggered an eruption of gooseflesh all over my body. A second eruption during the rock anthem version of UP Naming Mahal (Our Beloved UP). There were some mistakes, I admit, that made me wince for them, but overall, the performance was excellent.

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I then watched the routine of the NU squad, the winner of first place for this competition three years running.

The theme: caveman times. The performance was plagued with gaffes and miscues. It was obvious when the movements didn’t sync. A lot of lifts didn’t work; pyramids didn’t hold. To be fair, there was a gutsy partner stunt around three minutes and twenty seconds in that impressed me, the one where female cheerleaders stood and then flipped into a handstand supported by people underneath (though UP did a better handstand-to-standing-position partner stunt around four minutes and fifty seconds into their own routine). But overall, there were just too many mistakes to make it a stellar performance; some would even call it crude. Again, not saying I could do better, but that’s just how I see it.

After the competition, it was said that the difficulty of the stunts was taken into consideration in scoring. I’m no cheerleading expert, but it just felt like NU’s performance was a whole bunch of what-could-have-beens, and it didn’t deserve first place. It was a “pwede na” (“good enough”) effort, with obvious blunders that can be explained away by saying they “aimed too high”–a common self-handicapping tactic.

Why did they win? One can only speculate.

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Looking further into the results, I learned that UST’s Salinggawi dance troupe clinched second place. My older sister graduated from there (here’s her blog, btw), so I guess she’d be happy that they placed. On the other hand, she’s never been big on the whole school spirit thing, even as a student. Neither was I. I guess we’re just that kind of people.

I then watched their performance online.

While UP went up with their routine full of tosses and lifts, I saw UST’s performance to be a little more down-to-earth. They mostly stayed closer to the floor, carrying their routine through dance with quick steps and nimble rolls, rapid bursts of movement punctuated by deliberate shows of grace and strength. Not to say they stayed low; they also did their fair share of carrying and tossing and lifting, which they executed to great effect. It was a very polished and very well-choreographed performance, one you’d expect from a troupe that, even in my college days, were known for their predilection for and proficiency in modern dance.

Plus they showed a picture of a tiger, which was awesome.

I can see how they got second place. In truth, perhaps they should even have gotten first place. But being an alumnus of UP, my thoughts kept gravitating towards my alma mater’s effort, and my brain kept putting it and NU’s winning routine side by side.

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I saw two visions of the Philippines.

In one, we’re all united, working in sync, each person moving fast, faithful that his or her perspiration will contribute to something that will induce inspiration. Banners wave and music blares as Filipinos rise and fall, taking risks and ultimately landing safe in the hands of their brothers and sisters, a bold and death-defying work of art that culminates in the formation of one heart.

In the other, we’re in the Stone Age.

In my mind, the real one won.

But we shouldn’t lose heart. Wag mawalan ng puso. Just because reality won today, it doesn’t mean ideals can’t win tomorrow.

On Bad Days

I taste nothing but the crook in my teeth.

I feel nothing but the itch of hair

ill-grown, ungroomed, all oil and tangles

And no softness.

I see that my arms are nothing but bones

In betweeen hands, wrists, shoulders and elbows

No muscle or tone to speak of in between.

On those days, it feels to me like nothing lasts.

Luckily, I’m always right.

This Wasn’t on the Program

“I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him. He’s never caused any trouble.”

That’s essentially the comment I remember reading from one of my classmates in the closing days of high school. Graduation was looming, and people were going around saying their I’ll-miss-yous and this-isn’t-goodbyes (and, in some cases and in hushed tones, good-riddances). In our class, one of our closing exercises was to write whatever you could say about your classmates and give it to them on a strip of paper. I forgot how exactly, but we did it in a way where the person will not know who wrote the comments about him. Lots were involved.

I struggled to think of things to say. I was never one to mingle or mix, electing instead to stick to my primary role of studying;  looking back, I’d probably describe myself as a ghost, following rules and staying out of people’s way just so they’d stay out of mine. It was the courtesy of giving space, the practicality of avoiding friction.

I don’t remember what I wrote about others (though I know I didn’t think or say anything bad about anyone). I don’t even remember what people said about me, exactly. But that one sticks out.

At the time, I was proud of that.

***

“You can’t live your life in the baby seat,” the Barenaked Ladies sang from the radio as I drove around campus (slowly, because I was a newbie driver), collecting the various signatures that I need to get cleared. It was time to graduate again–this time, from college. Earning my degree had been a challenge, sure, but it had not felt like an ordeal, exactly. It was just another item to check off on my what-you’re-supposed-to-do-in-life list.

Was I happy about it? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was staying with the program. Keep your head low; nose to the grindstone, eyes on the books; keep your GPA up; don’t let others down; don’t rock the boat; don’t push other people; don’t invade others’ space; keep your elbows in, and don’t shove as you walk through the crowd.

I drove back to Albert Hall, where I got the last set of signatures I needed. All the blanks were filled.

Mission accomplished.

***

While complying can be an effective strategy for physical survival, it’s a lousy one for personal fulfillment. Living a satisfying life requires more than simply meeting the demands of those in control. Yet in our offices and in our classrooms we have way too much compliance and way too little engagement. The former might get you through the day, but only the latter will get you through the night.

I read that passage from Dan Pink’s book Drive, and it hits me like a liver blow. Three decades in, and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for–mainly because I haven’t thought about what it should be yet.

Around me, I see people getting married, building careers, making names for themselves, nurturing connections.

“I noticed tonight that the world has been turning while I’ve been stuck here dithering around,” the frontman of Keane croons through the speaker of my smartphone.

Dreams, it turns out, are not distractions. They are not beside the point. They are, in fact, the point.

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So to you, whoever you think you are–brother, sister, friend, lover–I say: learn the lesson I did not. Don’t build your life around the convenience of compliance and avoiding offense. Wander a bit, determine your passion, and don’t waste your opportunity to pursue it…

…because “I haven’t heard anyone say anything bad about him” makes for a poor eulogy.

Principles vs. Politics

So a lot of people may not be familiar with Philippine politics; Lord knows I’m not either, in spite of my being a born Filipino. But one hot topic right now is “who is going to run for president next year?”

If I’m right (I get my news mainly from passive diffusion, from hearing televisions and radios blaring in the background, or seeing comments on my Facebook feed and clicking on the occasional shared article), there are already three candidates: VP Jejomar Binay, Sen. Grace Poe, and DILG Secretary Mar Roxas. I list them in no particular order of merit, though from what I gather, VP Binay is getting the most flak at the moment, mainly because of charges of corruption that have been levied against him that continue to blacken his reputation.

And there is one political figure, very controversial, whom many wish were also running: Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. He has already won the hearts of many, on social media and off, because of his iron-fist style of law enforcement. He does not compromise when levying punishment against violators, the most recent example (of which I am aware) being his forcing a man to swallow a cigarette at gunpoint after said man refused to comply with his city’s ordinance against smoking in public places. It seems he doesn’t care about rattling cages or puncturing stuffed shirts; he acts like a man who has no time or energy to spare for politicking, a man who puts the task of “pleasing everybody” in the “not urgent, not important” quadrant of his personal Eisenhower matrix. Perhaps it’s this same “no time for this shit” thinking that led him to decide not to go after the presidency… at least, not next year.

Of course, many balked at the suggestion that he run for the highest office in the land. A hard-line style of rule comes at a price, and that price is a dubious reputation for disregarding human rights issues. Even international journalists have called him out, dubbing him the “Death Squad Mayor”. The Martial Law years during the Marcos regime are almost thirty years past, and yet they linger in our collective consciousness, bringing haunting images of extrajudicial killings authorized, covered up, and/or ignored by a decidedly anti-people administration. Like scar tissue, it still shows and draws out ugly thoughts whenever we as a nation have to look at ourselves naked in the political mirror.

Still, some of us rub our chins, seriously considering the merits of a leader who leans towards the law. The PNoy administration was ushered in on a platform of “Tuwid na Daan”, one that promised action against corruption. For many, I suppose, the next logical step is an administration that enforces the law without prejudice (whether that can be done in a country where wealth, and therefore access to competent criminal defense, is lacking is the red-hot, I’m-not-gonna-touch-that question).

Why is it easy to get behind a platform of anti-corruption, but not so easy to get behind one of law enforcement? To the cynical, it’s because the former is about the government being accountable, while the latter is about everybody being accountable. To the practical, it’s because the you can’t have effective law enforcement unless you can trust those who enforce the law (anyone who’s been on the wrong side of a traffic violation several times knows that what goes on after you’re pulled over isn’t always by the book. It’s like talking over a tapped phone line; both parties are careful about what is said in case it turns out to be what is heard).

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I just watched the film Heneral Luna, a contemporary masterpiece that, in bold, fearless strokes, shows how politics and principle often collide. Set around the turn of the 20th century, the movie depicts how the titular character, Antonio Luna, crusaded against the American troops’ incursion into our country.

In one of the very first scenes, he loudly decries the Philippine government’s action, or lack thereof, when the Americans enter the nation’s capital. Some leaders rationalize and justify the decision behind arguments for economic progress and other political considerations; other minor characters just exhibit ignorance and apathy, acting in their smaller interests such as family, ego, or (in one case) sex. Throughout the film, General Luna’s behavior shows that he will not hesitate to eviscerate (either verbally or literally) those who stand in his way and, by extension, in the way of his ideal of a free and united nation.

Though built on a framework of historical fact, it takes creative liberties in depicting the fight for liberty (as freely admitted in the opening credits), and it’s for the best. It’s a refreshing escape for many of us to see such a character in action. How does one speak his mind so openly? How can one so relentlessly defend his principles by attacking those whose actions and words go against them, without fear of giving offense?

It takes heart.

It takes guts.

It takes balls.

We commend those who can think matter-of-factly, those who can call it as they see it. It’s easy to do that when it’s just a matter of one principle versus another, your ideals against others’. Much harder is the exercise of calling a snake a snake, calling a weakling a weakling, and calling a hypocrite a hypocrite, for that potentially opens you up to attack as well. To be credible in that approach, all you do, all you are, must be in consonance with what you profess to be about, all the time.

Simple to say. But really, in a world of people, pride, and power, not easy to do.

The Four Faces of “What If” as Shown in Films

For the past few weeks, I’ve taken to listening to motivational speech montages. It’s easy to find them; just go to YouTube and type “motivation”, and you’ll find any number of content creators who took audio clips from motivational speakers (usually angry black men), set them to epic music (probably by Hans Zimmer, or whoever the composer for the music in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies is), spliced them onto montages of inspiring images (mostly of people working out), and posted them for people to see. A couple of my favorite creators are MotivationGrid and Younes Marxieu, though I’m sure there are others that are as good, if not better.

Anyway, one of the speakers featured is Greg Plitt, who was apparently a fitness model, actor, former army ranger, and reality show contestant on top of being a motivational speaker (he unfortunately died earlier this year trying to outrun a train, a fact that a friend of mine finds deliciously funny). The quote of his that stuck to me was this:

“I failed” is ten times more of a man than “what if”, because “what if” never went to the arena.

The first time I heard it, it sounded so powerful, as real and rousing as a bucket of ice water in the face. But when I shared it with my friend, he dismissed it outright. “Just because you say ‘what if’ doesn’t mean you’re afraid”, he said.

Thinking about it, I realize he’s right. “What if” is a phrase that is purely speculative by itself. Depending on how you fill the blanks after that, it can mean different things.

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“What if” can show a forward-facing or an over-the-shoulder perspective, and it can be a buoying or burdensome question.

You may not believe me, that friend of mine, or the awesome table above that I took the trouble to create. Fine, don’t take my word for it… but you might consider listening to Hollywood.

Some people say “what if” in the context of fear of failure, rejection, or pessimism.

“What if” can be a preface to bleak possibilities. This is the perspective that sees the future as a minefield, a constant stream of threats to be avoided and risks to be minimized. When I think about this aspect, I think about George McFly from Back to the Future:

Some people say “what if” in the context of innovation, brainstorming, and a spirit of adventure.

This one tumbles out of the lips of inventors, scientists, artists, explorers, and imaginative children. This is basically the “what if” that pushes the envelope, a conviction with such substance and weight behind it that it has the potential to change others’ perceptions–and possibly reality itself. This is the bravest incarnation of “what if”, and it reminds me of Ellie from Up:

Some people say “what if” in the context of regret or agonizing over a missed chance.

There is a Filipino word, sayang, that doesn’t have a perfect English counterpart. People have dreams, desires that they want to fulfill, and sometimes they do not act on them because of fear. When they decide not to act, and after the time to act passes, regret sets in. Sayang.

(Note: Sayang can be used in other contexts, like a near-miss or something that didn’t work out in the end.)

This face of “what if” is reminiscent of a character from Heart and Souls, a film from the 90’s starring Robert Downey Jr. I couldn’t find a clip of it online, but basically, it’s about a man, Thomas Reilly (played by RDJ), who helps four souls correct mistakes that they made in life. One of them, Harrison, regrets not having sung onstage, and the group decides to make this right by having him sing the US National Anthem in front of a crowd. When Harrison tries to back out out of fear, RDJ confronts him:

Harrison Winslow: Who came up with this ridiculous concept anyway? Resolve your entire life in one bold stroke? What if I fail? And I will. I’ll fail. I’m telling you. I always fail. Then my whole life will be a complete failure.

Thomas Reilly: No offense, Harrison. But you died a failure because you never tried.

If you get the chance, watch this movie. If it doesn’t make you smile or cry at any point, I have to conclude that you are a robot or some kind of soulless yet animated husk.

Some people say “what if” in the context of relief, of realizing how lucky they are. 

Every decision has a cost and a benefit. For everything you gain from every choice you make, you also stand to lose something because you gave up doing something else. That’s called opportunity cost, and while Mr. Plitt saw the backward-facing “what if” as an expression of regret, it could actually be a way to appreciate your good fortune because for all you know, you might have gotten off lucky. A wonderful example can be found in 500 Days of Summer:

Depending on how you look at your life, whether you look at the past or the future, whether you lean towards hope or despair, you’ll have a different take. But remember, all those perspectives are just based on speculation. If you want to avoid all the heartache and headache associated with “what if”, perhaps the best thing to do is to just act on things, not necessarily without fear, but certainly with the acceptance that while things might go wrong, they just might go right.