When I was finishing up my MFA in Creative Writing, I had no job prospects. My experience impressed no one. Besides being an instructor at the university, I had been a cocktail waitress, a breakfast waitress at a place called The Eggery that was perpetually out of eggs, an artists’ model, a retail worker, and a person who pestered shoppers to take surveys at the mall.
At a friend’s apartment, I saw the writing and editing portfolio for a large company. She told me it was a packet of exercises you could fill out to be considered for a position. (Note: I don’t think they have a portfolio like this now — this was a long time ago.) I sent for one myself.
The portfolio had a lot of exercises. I didn’t know what I was doing and it didn’t come naturally to me, so it took me a very long time. I came home from teaching and worked on it every night, telling Mr. Donovan that I wasn’t getting my hopes up.
But I had to. Imagining myself in a dream job, and living with Mr. Donovan in a nice one-bedroom apartment instead of a studio in Tucson with no air conditioning, was the only way I could bring myself to finish the portfolio to the absolute best of my ability. And while I’m sure I would shudder to see my submission now, it was just good enough to get me a round of interviews, which got me an editor job and a fantastic career.
Many people make fun of the idea that things are more likely to happen if you believe in them hard enough. However, I think lots of us subscribe to the opposite idea: that believing in something will make it less likely to happen — that somehow, it will “jinx” it. This is a much more damaging kind of magical thinking, because it can lead to mediocre efforts or not trying at all.
Other people avoid high aspirations because they think they’re a sign of foolishness and naiveté. The most amazing (and by amazing, I mean horrible) example I ever encountered of this was in a grad writing workshop. A woman, maybe 27 or 28 years old, confessed that she used to dream of publishing a novel that garnered some modest success. The professor said something like, “Well, we all have unrealistic fantasies when we’re younger…”
Friends. This young woman, besides being a student in a graduate writing program, wrote an advice column for what I think was the biggest teen magazine in the United States. If someone like that can’t hope to publish a book, who can?!
But did I speak up and say, “OF COURSE YOU CAN MAKE THAT HAPPEN”? I did not, because I was mired in the same low expectations, and thank goodness I got over that eventually. (So did she, apparently, because I know she published at least two novels.)
People also don’t want to get their hopes up because they want to spare themselves from crushing disappointment. I’m not convinced this actually works. Even if you pretend you didn’t really want something, deep down, you know better. And if you went through life never really wanting anything too much, well, that would be depressing.
Hopefulness, like cynicism, is rarely focused on one thing. In my experience, if you allow yourself to be hopeful, one disappointment actually doesn’t hurt as much. You’ve got ten other things you’re also hopeful about!
Also, with a more optimistic mindset, you’re likely to respond to bad news with thoughts like: “Could this actually work in my favor, in the long run?” Or, “This wasn’t my last chance. I have lots of other options.”
And I think the best outcome of allowing yourself to get disappointed is realizing that you can survive it, and it doesn’t have to throw you off your game for long. You get less scared of rejection or failures. And that tilts life a little more in your favor.