Sunday, January 9, 2011

Livin' the Dream

Living the Dream

In true American style, Ted Williams was living in a cardboard box last week. Now he's a media sensation and well on his way to making some serious cash.


I know it's corny, but after 20 years in the US, the "can-do" attitude still amazes me. From a skinny, inexperienced African American guy making it to the White House, to a down and out ex-con being spotted by the side of the road, it shows that anything is possible here. There are no barriers to success.

Unlike the Rolling Stones, who sang "You can’t always get what you want", Americans prefer to sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Barak Obama's presidential slogan was "Yes we can", which was a bold move for one so young and inexperienced. But it paid off.

Some might say that this approach to life can lead to disappointment, but wouldn't you rather go to your grave having tried something, than full of regret at not having had the nerve?

I remember a girls' weekend in Boston many years ago. We had tickets for a Sunday morning Duck Tour (an amphibious vehicle which drives around the streets then plunges into the Charles River for a bit of a cruise). As usual, we were running late and had been warned against that by the Duck people. As we neared the departure point, we were a good ten to fifteen minutes tardy so the English contingent gave up and started walking slowly. "We've missed it. Let's not bother. We'll do something else".

"No, no," said the Americans, "Keep running. You never know".

So the Brits started running half-heartedly, readying their "Told you so" faces. We rounded the corner to find the Duck vehicle not only still in the parking lot, but the tour guide waiting for us and encouraging us to run as fast as we could. I learned something that day.

Some say the belief that anyone can do anything is self-deceptive, and I agree that there must be a dab of realism in there. But when does realism become pessimism? When does the glass become half empty as opposed to half full?


I may be the American in this duo, but I have to take the British side on this one. Certainly good things do happen to people. Some people. On the other hand, some people get struck by lightning, but that doesn’t mean something like this is in store for the general population. And you don’t have to look very hard to conclude that there is a fair amount of Sod’s Law at work in the universe.

Sod’s Law, as you may know, is not the same as Murphy’s Law. Can anyone explain the difference? “(Oh, me, sir! Can I, sir?”)

Murphy’s Law is an engineering principle that reasons, if you build a system that has a fault in it that, if exploited, will have adverse effects, then you must assume someone will exploit that flaw. It’s an exhortation to build systems intelligently, whereas Sod’s Law is more like rain at a picnic. It’s much more pessimistic in its outlook, and therefore more suited to the British mentality.

Even when I lived in America, I wavered between being a cautious optimist and a realist, which I take to mean, expect the worst, and if it doesn’t happen, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised. This may sound strange coming from me after my previous post advocating optimism. The truth is, I do like to believe good things will happen; it’s just real life teaches us that they rarely do.

What I think makes the Americans different isn’t that they succeed more often, as I do not believe they do, but that, despite failure after failure after failure, they never stop believing they can and will succeed. Perhaps there is a lot we all can learn from that attitude.

And, by the way, Obama ripped off, “Yes we can!” from Bob the Builder.

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  1. This is one of the main reasons I believe I am much happier here than I ever was in the UK. I have always been filled with optimism and a glass half full attitude. I spent much of my life in the UK frustrated with others lack of optimism and willingness to 'knock' the success of others. Here I fit right in and love Americans willingness to 'give it a go' and celebrate others success.

  2. Sods Law = If you drop a screwdriver whilst at the workbench it will roll into the furthest, most inaccessible corner under the bench.

    Johnson's corollory to Sod's law = The screwdriver will hit you on the foot on the way down


    To determine if a glass is half full or half empty is easy....

    If you have a glass full of fluid (say, water) and drink half of it, then it is half empty.

    If however, you only fill the glass to the halfway mark in the first place, then it is of course, half full.

  3. I read a great Sod's Law theory years ago.
    The probability of a slice of toast landing jam side down is directly related to the price of the carpet!

  4. Oh dear another bagging the Brits post. One thing Americans do incessantly is blow their own trumpet - after 20 years in the US Toni doesn't realise she's doing it any more

  5. Anon: Toni's post never mentions the Brits except in relation to a duck tour experience. What she is saying is that it is no bad thing to be optimistic and believe good things will happen.

    It was my half that pointed out that the Brits tend to be, shall we say, less enthusiastic about self promotion via their brass instruments.

    There is no "bagging" going on here--just a discussion on which attitude you prefer.

  6. I love the American 'can do' attitude. I agree that sometimes it needs to be tempered with realism, but I love the way that when a problem arises, the attitude here is "how can we solve this?" rather than "huh, typical, wouldn't you just know it?"

    Here in the US, one thing I've learnt to do when faced with a problem, is to ask "what next?" not "what if?". I've found that very helpful.

  7. ^^ what Iota said. I must confess to tending towards negativity myself (though I prefer to think of it as realism), but I am a problem solver by nature.

    We currently have a friend staying who believes that life hates him and everything goes wrong for him. Actually, he does have a point(!), though much of it (though not all) is self-inflicted. I am finding it hard going and am realising that I am not as negative as I thought I was!

    I do like Bob the Builder, by the way.

  8. Anon- what I often say to Americans is "Just because I praise something British, doesn't mean I hate you nor does it mean I'm necessarily slagging off Americans", and the reverse is also true. I'm a Brit. Can't I criticise my own attitude sometimes without it necessarily being a bash Britain exercise? It is too easy to live here as an outsider an find fault with everything. (It is also a terribly British thing to do BTW.)
    The purpose of Pond Parleys is to explore differences in habits and attitude, often with a sense of humo(u)r, and without going off in a huff like 7 year olds.

  9. I miss that American optimism. I have found the Eyeore syndrome here in the UK difficult to get adjusted to. Even my hubby, the scientist, refuses to see a way to solve problems. It is more his style to just hang his head and understand that it is just the way things are.

  10. isn't Murphy's law "if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong."? - that's what i was always taught.
    and yes, my instinct is more british but i admire and aspire to the american can-do approach.

  11. Toni ...yeah despite the fact I am probably the most negative person on the planet apart from Victor Meldrew I am gradually becoming a little more optimistic after living in the US for ten years. It is a fact as you say that if you believe bad things will happen they will. It's all a question of mind over matter!

  12. And for the record, as I've said before on this blog, I'm definitely a glass half empty person, but working on it. If nothing else, it's a real downer for everyone else.

  13. Toni re last comment...keep working on it for your kids sake! As someone who has the female equivalent of VM for a mother, trust me it gets really old by your mid-40's to the point where you avoid unnecessary contact!

  14. But ironically it was Winston Churchill who penned this glass half-empty person's favorite quotes, "Success is the ability to go from one failure to another without loss of enthusiasm.", "Never, never give up." and "If you're going through hell, keep going.

  15. I just read Brit Gal Sarah's comment and I would like to second her suggestion. I think this world is terribly depressing as we've seen this past weekend and if our children are not getting a sense of optimism from their parents, where are they getting it?

    My MIL is so negative I avoid her at all cost.

  16. I too love the American positivity. I think it could be summed up by last year's Winter Olympics commentary. There was huge build up to the American athletes, but if they then messed up/crashed out, the commentary quickly moved on without dwelling on the mishap. In Britain, we would have spent hours agonising with different pundits about why we were so crap.

  17. Ladies, ladies - I'm not that bad! Mind you - my kids have to be able to function in the UK without getting their heads shoved down the loo, so a touch of negativism in their lives is probably helping them. ;-)

  18. The British are rather Eeyore-ish. I'm still much more of an Eeyore than a Tigger myself, but I'm sure than American positivity that I found to be such an irritant to begin with (but no longer) will worm it's way into me.

  19. When Mike and I did a Radio Five live discussion last year (I think) about US versus UK stuff, I am on record as saying that living here is like living with 350 million labrador puppies. It's true.

  20. Not really wanting to be considered a fence sitter, but I think there's worlds of wonderful things on both sides of the pond and I wish that I could split my time and live 6 months there and 6 months here. We loved our time in England, lived 4 years in Bucks (Beaconsfield) and wouldn't trade one second of our time there. Terry Wogan for President!

  21. People seem more excited about others' triumphs in the States--as if their success is evidence that it can happen to anyone who puts effort in, thus reinforcing the American Dream and keeping the dream alive for everyone.

    In the UK people apologise for success. Unless you're in Essex. (for those who don't know: I live in Essex and I like it)

  22. The Brits love a loser. See Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards.

  23. I suppose I am a Realist! But..... its good to be optimistic and for those who are by nature *a glass half full* type, I do envy you! I am working on it.
    I suppose I would like to be somewhere in the middle!
    Good debate.
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

  24. My personal view is that being "half empty" prevents you from bitter disappointment and any wins are all the sweeter for it. However, I recognise that this sometimes begets failure (you get what you expect) and is certainly not as fun to listen to.
    (Expat Mum)

  25. I'm a little hesitant to join in here since I have only lived in the U.S., and have come to know the British only through my blogging the past few years. But I do see the "syndrome" you are speaking of with regard to general outlook on life. I think the attitude on each side is more deeply rooted in general cultural differences - the way we are raised as children - than in any "inborn" optimism or pessimism, though I suppose either will rub off on you if you hang around either group long enough.

    Using only my blogging contacts, some of whom have become friends, I find many British folk seem to be put off by the rather exuberant attitude of Americans, especially with the way many Americans seem to take credit for everything and are quick to poo poo the way things are done by other cultures. That's understandable. On the other hand (and forgive me for saying this) I have witnessed a sort of blanket reluctance of the British to take risks, to lay their egos on the line. I don't think it is so much a fear of failure as it is a fear of ridicule from peers if they fail.

    Both countries have accomplished great things, so it is difficult to say one way is better than the other way. As an American, though, I know in my heart I would feel suppressed, even stifled, in certain ways if I were forced to contain my enthusiasm to the extent the British seem to prefer to do. It is just a completely different philosophy of living. Off course, these are general statements and will hardly hold true for ALL people on either side. Also, my observations are really of the English rather than British, since I have very few Scots or Welsh folks who visit my blog regularly.

    Reserved or not, or unfathomable humor or not, I still love the British. Gotta admit that.

  26. Welcome, Relax Max, and thanks for your insight. Looking forward to hearing more.

  27. What an interesting post! I think part of what makes Americans different and less cautious is that we have not had war on our soil. Most of us have been quite protected from what other people in the world have lived with time and again. Unfortunately, this also leads us to be unrealistic and think that nothing bad could possibly happen to us...after all, we're Americans. That's a very foolish way to think, but I hear it all the time, even in reference to our failing economy.

  28. Oops, I must correct myself...'we have not had an invasion and war on our soil.' I haven't forgotten America's Civil War.


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