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Choosing Optimism (because 2021 is just 2020 in new yoga pants)

By Matthew S. Helmer

January is my favorite month. This isn’t exactly a widely shared opinion in my experience, particularly among those in the northern hemisphere. But there is so much to love about this time of year — for example, snow! And sweaters, and soup, and snuggling. There are even things that don’t start with the letter “S” — like reflection and gratitude for the lessons of a year that has passed, and renewal of hope for what is yet to come.

This hefty dose of optimism is what I have come to appreciate most about the start of a new year. It’s an annual opportunity to start over, to hit the reset button on whatever challenges the prior 12 months tossed our way and look ahead with a fresh perspective. I suppose this optimistic outlook was imprinted on me as a child. Born in late January, I quickly realized the end of the holiday season was no reason to be sad — better days were ahead and there was always hope that the gift I desperately wanted and didn’t receive just might turn up on my birthday.

But y’all, that gift doesn’t always materialize, and not every year lives up to the promise with which its arrival is feted (I’m looking at you, 2020). This is where optimism’s lifelong companion comes along to pick up the slack: hello, resilience! Because the difficult truth to all of this is that there is nothing magical about a new set of numbers on a calendar.

On the heels of an unprecedented year (are we still using that term?) I nonetheless expected to welcome the first week of January the way I have for decades — after all, I am an optimist! — rested from well-earned downtime, with a spring in my step and an annoying giddiness that my favorite month has finally arrived. It didn’t happen. Instead, a pandemic surges uncontrollably to dismal new peaks, wreaking havoc on lives, livelihoods and our education systems. A dark cloud hangs over the American government. And no New Year’s celebration will ever magically undo the centuries of systemic racism that plague us; the fight must continue.

Instead of greeting these days with wide-eyed enthusiasm, I found myself trudging along, doom-scrolling as though it’s still October and tepidly dipping my toes back into the murky waters of whatever might be next for our working world. But this simply shall not do. Did 2020 break me? Have I become a — gasp! — pessimist? Surely not. This is a significant moment of transformation, certainly for the profession of philanthropy, and perhaps (hopefully?) for our way of living together on this planet. If ever the cheerful energy of the optimists among us was needed to keep moving toward a brighter tomorrow, it is now.

And therein lies my New Year’s revelation: whether a product of nature or nurture, I’ve always viewed my optimism as hardwired — just simply part of who I am — and my choices motivated in large part by that identity as an optimist. What if, instead, my optimism is a product of my choices? With this reframe, is it possible I have been choosing optimism all along — that whenever reality presented a crossroads, I’ve simply chosen a path of hopefulness? If true, I can certainly choose it again, and again, no matter the difficulty of the moment.

And so, in 2021, I’m not making any resolutions (we all know I’m far too undisciplined for that anyway). I am, however, choosing optimism. I choose hopefulness because I believe in the generosity of donors and the positive change they make happen every day. I choose confidence in successful outcomes because, even as we continue working through Zoom and MS Teams, I trust my team will collaborate to create innovative solutions that transform the way donors experience the impact of their giving. I choose optimism because I see resiliency pulsating through the human spirit around us — in my family, in my teammates, in me, and in you. I choose optimism because it’s what we all need right now. I hope you’ll join me on this expectant path. Bring it on, 2021! (and Happy New Year, y’all!)

A note from the author: Ok, y’all. You know that we at the DRG Group will always level with you, even when the truth is difficult to face. And the truth is, I wrote this blog before January 6, a day many of us spent watching with horror as a violent insurrection took place at the U.S. Capitol and tragic new records were set in the ongoing pandemic. I considered yanking this one completely – was it simply naïve to pontificate about choosing optimism as (yet another) disturbing moment in history plays out on the world stage?

The thing is no one ever said choosing optimism would be easy. And isn’t that exactly the point? The very moment a situation seems darkest is when we most need a ray of hope. This is what those with generous hearts know when they choose to lift others through their philanthropy. It’s what we, as leaders, must remember whenever the challenge seems too great to overcome – it’s not about having the right answers (we don’t), it’s about choosing to inspire hope in others. And being of service to others is why we chose this profession in the first place.

Today, the sun rose again (quite spectacularly, too, for those lucky enough to catch it), and steeling myself, I will move forward, perhaps with a little less focus on getting through my task list and a little more on connecting with others who might also be in need of a lift. Let’s give that a try and, perhaps with a little less goading than I suggested originally, we can tackle 2021 together.

Matthew S. Helmer is a DRG Group member and Assistant Vice President of University Advancement at Colorado State University. For his birthday, all he wants is a case of mezcal — because even hope needs help staying alive. Connect with Matthew on LinkedIn or @ him on Twitter to swap inspirational quotes and margarita recipes. Cheers to the New Year!


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