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The Words We Choose

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What’s your favorite oxymoron? You know, two words that don’t go together when you really think about it. Sometimes they’re called a “contradiction in terms.” Things like

“Jumbo Shrimp” or “Deafening Silence.” Right now, mine is “Cautiously Optimistic.” OK, maybe it’s not my favorite, but it is one that I have used a lot. It’s how I would often describe myself and especially how I felt about my business. Starting a business? These days? I guess one could hardly be blamed for using the word “caution” in the economic times in which we live. However, I have come to realize those terms don’t do me any favors. It’s sort of like driving with your foot on the brake, don’t you think?

Being “cautiously optimistic” is really just a defense mechanism. I mean, if you try something “cautiously” and it doesn’t work out, you fail – but only a little bit. You cushion the blow with lowered expectations. But that’s the problem. Failure is a relative term. Sure, no one wants a colossal failure on their hands, but if life is just one big learning curve, why not learn big?

Photo courtesy of space4schools.co.uk

There is a fantastic line in one of my favorite movies – Apollo 13. This 1995 classic beautifully depicts the drama surrounding that ill-fated moon mission. As final preparations are being made to give instructions to the astronauts as to how they are going to land back safely on the ocean after an onboard explosion, there is this exchange:

NASA Director: “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever faced.”

Gene Kranz (Flight Director): “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

THAT, boys and girls is OPTIMISM.

(It is also great cinematic moment, superbly portrayed by Ed Harris, I might add.)

What would optimism of the “cautious” variety have sounded like?

“With all due respect sir, it’s possible one of them might survive!”

“With all due respect sir, I think the space craft might survive as a museum piece.”

“With all due respect sir, some of us might still keep our jobs if we look like we’re really trying!”

Not exactly the stuff of which legends are made.

Photo courtesy of flightglobal.com

Gene Kranz knew, in that moment, that they were either going to get those astronauts home safely or not and there was no middle ground. Failure was NOT an option and Mr. Kranz and his team practically WILLED those astronauts home. It is an incredible story and one that didn’t need to be pumped up or rewritten by Hollywood. Sometimes, having a Fall Back Plan means you plan to fall back. The middle ground is boring. The sweetest fruit is at the end of the branch.

Our words and, by extension, our thoughts have great power. So with that in mind, I hereby declare that when I am in a state of optimism, I will not water it down with caution! And if you think that’s foolish, we can always “Agree to Disagree!”