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Gleaning Optimism and Agility from Pop Culture, Academic Theory and Jewish Practice

Posted on Wednesday, January 09, 2019 by Mark S. Young

I am an idealist, my Wexner class knows this. I prefer to identify hope and opportunity even during difficult times. Yet, I am not always the optimistic person I appear to be. I, perhaps like you, have moments my Mom would call, “the pits,” when life is bringing me down and all I want to do is pity myself and shut off the world. 

It is then when I turn to the years of my adolescence and emerging adulthood, the 1990’s and early 2000’s. For in the pop culture of a generation ago there are lessons that help me, and I believe can help us all, live our lives today with more energy, agility, optimism and determination to reach and realize our full potential. Interestingly, the following lessons also align with those I have learned from Jewish practice, the academic theory within my work, and my Wexner coach.

Lesson One: Check Ya Self Before Ya Wreck Yaself
I did not grow up a gangsta wrap fan. Yet I do remember in 1992 (I was 11) constantly hearing on the radio, “Check Ya Self Before Ya Wreck Yaself,” from rap artist Ice Cube. While the rest of the lyrics are not my cup of tea, the refrain is powerful, asking us to examine our behaviors and determine which are helping us in times of difficultly and which may be harmful. 

Ice Cube perhaps channeled his inner experiential educator, taking a page from John Dewey and David Kolb who advise us to reflect on our experiences in order to learn, grow and choose to engage in behaviors that will help us out of our funk.

After a bad day, I need a little time to “checkout,” yet it is not time to retreat into unproductive or harmful behaviors. Indulging in bad habits may give us temporary glee, but ultimately push us farther down the rabbit hole. Ice Cube taught me to realize and exercise the control I have, that it is up to me to “check ya self,” reflect and act on the behaviors that will keep me optimistic and agile. 

Lesson Two: Run Forrest Run
One of those behaviors for me is running. I began running at 13 shortly after viewing Forrest Gump, the 1994 Best Picture win (see photo of me trying to look cool at my Bar Mitzvah.) The iconic film gave us more lessons to live life with optimism and agility then most other films, and the one I follow is “Run Forrest Fun.” Forrest would resort to running not always to run away from danger, rather, to feel strong, escape his inadequacies, and feel on top while the world branded him as stupid. Forrest’s running, and his underlying perseverance, helped him get through his topsy-turvy, yet blessed life. Even when his love Jenny abruptly leaves him late in the film, Forrest runs for three years (two months, 14 days and 16 hours…) engaging in the healthy act he loved to navigate through and leave behind the sadness and pessimism he felt. 

Both when I am down and when not, I run to start my day. It helps me make the right choices each day and feel optimistic about the future. Running takes care of my soul and, to me, is like prayer. I often say that running is my Shacharit (our daily morning service), during which I praise daily miracles, ask for health, love and the ability to make smart decisions and express gratitude for life’s many blessings. 

But the guidance for you doesn’t have to be running per say, rather the soul-feeding spiritual activity of your choice that lifts you up when you are down and keeps you optimistic and agile.

Lesson Three: Go to Your Happy Place 
In 1996’s Happy Gilmore, Adam Sandler plays a washed-up hockey player who, thanks to his coach Chubbs, finds professional success as a golfer with an unorthodox style, running into his drives and putting with a hockey stick. Happy, though, has an anger management problem. When he is learning how to putt and is told that he needs to “put the ball in his home,” Happy misses the hole, and loses his temper as he screams, “go to your home, ball, why don’t you want to be in your home?” 

It’s hilarious, yet the frustration Happy displays (while extreme) is real and serious. Chubbs advises Happy to “go to his happy place” and put himself in the mindset of a setting where he is happy and content, channeling positive energy and hope to his current situation so he can properly focus, be calm and act with a rational and clear mind at all times.

My Wexner Field Fellowship executive coach, Scott Brown, essentially gave me similar advice recently. I had just completed a great day at work and Scott advised me to “remember this feeling,” and whenever I may be down or anxious to channel my professional happy place, as it were, calming me down, reminding me of the facts and proceeding with a clear head. Scott chuckled and smiled when I told him his advice aligns with the ‘90’s classic. 

Lesson Four: It’s Only for Now
Finally from the early 2000’s, the unlikely best musical featuring Muppets with bad mouths. Avenue Q ends with a precipitous song that says everything is only for now. “That smile is only for now, your hair is only for now!” The show’s surface level zaniness covers up its deep message about the messiness and unpredictability of life that motivates me to approach life with optimism. Our success is only for now, so we must work hard to maintain it, knowing setbacks will be inevitable. Our failures and doldrums too, are fleeting, so we must remind ourselves that we always have a choice to make it “for now,” and make tomorrow better for ourselves and those around us.

Our world is in flux as we enter 2019, and each of us may be dealing with challenges or sadness of some kind. When our pessimism creeps in, we can instead look inward, heeding these deep lessons, whether from pop culture or from the wisdom of Jewish practice, academic theories and our teachers of which they align. As it is commonly translated from Pirkei Avot (4:1) – “One who is wise, is one who learns from everyone (and I mean everyone.)”

B’hatzlacha (to your success) in the year ahead!


Wexner Field Fellow Mark S. Young (Class 1) is the Managing Director of The Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. Mark can be reached here.