Staying positive. It’s a never-ending battle, right? Whilst we understand the benefits of a positive mental attitude, there’s always more work than time, more opportunities than money, more detractors than supporters. There’s an onslaught of daily negativity chipping away at our positivity. It’s truly hard to stay positive at work and in life. That’s why today I’m sharing one of the most inspirational stories I’ve ever heard. And it helps remind us that, even in the most difficult circumstances, the battle to stay positive is worth the fight.
This is the story of a realist named Ray Poole. His story begins one New Year’s Eve. It’s a New Year he’ll never forget because he ended up in a hospital room. He didn’t know it that night but he’d have to quit his job and remain in that hospital room for the best part of a year. No, Ray wasn’t sick – his wife, Rebecca, was. She was suddenly very sick.
A week earlier Rebecca had been working in a job she loved. She had been managing her Cystic Fibrosis, the genetic disease she’d been born with. It’s a life-shortening disease that compromises the lungs. Whilst there’s no cure, there are things sufferers can do to try and stay healthy – and Rebecca had been doing them all. But, as is often the case with Cystic Fibrosis, Rebecca’s health suddenly deteriorated. Her lungs gave up – she needed a double lung transplant.
In the year that followed Rebecca was in a coma for six weeks, required a vent for six months to be kept alive and had a double lung transplant. I think I’d be understating it to say Rebecca found herself in an extraordinarily tough situation.
So there they were, Rebecca and Ray, sharing the same hospital room for all that time but their struggles were so very different. And it is Ray’s journey and daily battle to secure, what he calls ‘realistic optimism’ that can help inspire us all to continue to fight to be positive – even in the most extraordinary circumstances.
“Becca was in a coma for six weeks so, early on, I had to figure out why I was there, what value I was adding,” Ray tells me. Having eaten into all his vacation time, Ray quickly had to decide whether to go back to work. It wasn’t an easy choice. He too had a job he loved, one he wanted to progress in. The couple had a mortgage. Without his income things were going to become financially difficult.
“So I started by defining my purpose,” Ray continues. “It was to give Becca the best chance of survival. I wouldn’t consider myself a failure if she didn’t make it but I would consider myself a failure if I didn’t help her. So, I quit my job. That way I’d be on hand to advocate and be there for her.”
There were many ups and downs on Rebecca’s long journey to getting a lung transplant so Ray had to find a way to deal with them. “My job was to keep Becca happy and supported. No matter how tough, I had to find a way to keep my mood upbeat because that would impact how Becca felt.”
Ray did that by adopting a strategy of realistic optimism. “Everyone thinks they are a realist,” Ray says “but you can choose what type of realist you are. You can be optimistic or pessimistic. I chose to be a realistic optimist because what’s to be gained from being pessimistic?”
It certainly wasn’t always easy to maintain that positivity. At times Rebecca’s prognosis was dire, the burden of responsibility on Ray overwhelming, as was the guilt he felt when occasionally leaving the hospital to sleep, shower, eat or exercise.
But Ray maintained his realistic optimism approach by recording his learnings and drawing on them in difficult times. He learned a lot of valuable lessons in that hospital room and is keen to share them. He shares three here that hold real value in business:
- Focus on the plan not the problem. The problem can often be so big it’s overwhelming. Come up with a plan and focus on one step at a time.
- Paint a positive future. It’s important to have a plan but know what you are working towards and paint a picture of how that will look and feel when you get there. That vision can incentivise the next difficult step.
- Celebrate small successes. Don’t overlook the short-term gains you make, no matter how small. They are evidence that you are progressing towards you long-term goal.
The end to Ray’s story is a happy one. It’s three years this month since Rebecca successfully had her lung transplant. His story is proof that even in the most difficult situations, nothing is a given. We have a choice about how we respond. “You have to recognise averages for what they are – they are just averages. Focus on what’s important. Continue to fight and work towards your ultimate goal. Oh, and choose realistic optimism!”
Ray is a fantastic storyteller. You can see his TED X talk here. If you enjoy that, please do read his full story, “Lessons from a CF Cornerman”. Told in his own words, it contains all 38 of the valuable lessons he learned in that hospital room – available here.
There are 70,000 people worldwide suffering with Cystic Fibrosis and this week is Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Week www.cysticfibrosis.org.uk
Alex was employed by internationally-loved household brands to craft their words for two decades. She established not A Duff word in March 2017 to help businesses, brands and boards to wordsmith words that work, master their messages to matter and sculpt standout stories. Her blog ‘early words’ is published Thursday mornings at 07:00.