Guest Post: Jake Kerr on Optimism

Jake Kerr stands out in my memory as the guy who makes weird faces when you point a camera at him. It gets worse after – wait – under the laws of Viable Paradise, that is all I can tell you. Anyway, as someone who felt a bit shy and quite weird about her place in a group of phenomenal writers, I can tell you that Jake is a good guy to have around. He’s also a hell of a writer – His story, ‘The Old Equations,’ has been nominated for Sturgeon and Nebula awards. You can read it here, and you should – not only because it’s a great story, but because it’s the only fiction where anyone ever used my name for a pregnant character, something I think he giggled over in the wee hours of the night.

More recently published is his ‘Requiem in the Key of Prose”, which you can read on Lightspeed Magazine’s website here. You can also follow him on Twitter, here. You can see a photo of his face right on this very page.

Right, that’s enough from me. Here’s the man himself:


In 2001 I was making $135,000 a year writing weekly columns for a music industry publication. I owned two cars, a house worth nearly a half million dollars, and my kids were going to private school.

In December of that year I was laid off as the music industry started to collapse. In 2002, I made $18,000.

I sold my house at a big loss. I sold my Range Rover. I moved into an apartment with my wife and two kids. I cancelled my cell phones. I cancelled cable TV. I pulled my kids out of private school. I declared bankruptcy and stood in line as I applied for food stamps. Christmas wasn’t very fun. I didn’t get another job for 18 months.

I was a little stressed, a little overwhelmed, but I was always happy.

And this is one of the unfair things about life. I know that my ability to face challenges with a perpetually smiling face has little to do with my upbringing, my education, my knowledge, and my family support system. It is, to a very large degree, just the way I AM.

There are a couple ways to react to being happy, and I think several of them can be ugly. You can take pride in it, and see those who are unhappy as simply not trying as hard to be happy as you have, whatever that means. You can be happy and yet still be nervous or scared. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. So some happy people blame those who are unhappy on their own shortcomings, because it is too frightening to think that your own happiness is not entirely due to yourself.

I do my best to approach my happiness with a great deal of humility. I was given a gift–one of those easy difficult settings of life that author John Scalzi has written about so eloquently. Life is easier for me. Things that bother others, things that cripple others, have entirely no impact on me. As a result, I feel a responsibility for this gift I was given. I know that I cannot chemically make people feel better, but I can make their interactions with me, however deep or fleeting they are, as positive as they can be.

It saddens me to see people depressed, not feeling comfortable with life, or even just feeling blue. So I try to the best of my ability to be a bright spot. Whenever I can I offer positive comments, support, or a kind word I do. Whenever someone feels like life is just too overwhelming or all his or her choices will lead to failure, I try to be the voice of optimism. I don’t know if this actually does anything, to be honest, but I make the effort anyway.

I am also aware that I am not always helping. I can be overbearing. I sometimes try too hard to make a laugh, which falls flat. And, perhaps most painfully, I make things worse by thinking some positive words would help when all the person really needs to be is alone.

There is also the perception of arrogance unrelated to the pride I mentioned earlier. When one is happy, one tends to think of positive outcomes. When one is working on something–whether it is art, a work project, or something athletic–a happy person will naturally think that they will do well. This can come across as arrogance.

“Jake honestly thinks that he’ll sell every story he writes to a professional market? What a cocky asshole.” Well, I do feel that way, but it’s because I’m hopelessly optimistic and positive, although I have no objective viewpoint about that. Maybe I AM arrogant and cocky, and, see? That’s how a happy person thinks. When given two choices, optimistic and positive or arrogant and cocky, you tend to gravitate to the more positive of the two.

This obviously happens with failure, as well. A setback is just that–a setback. It isn’t a full stop or a final end–“Hey, this kind of sucks, but this was just not the right opportunity, the right time, or the right situation.” This is inevitably followed by “Hey, the next one will succeed.” Failure is never really that bad because life is full of so many options and opportunity that a failure is just a minor thing.

Of course, oppressive and persistent failure can have an impact. Happy people are not immune to the psychological concept of learned helplessness, but they are highly resistant to it. If a person suffering from depression gives up after one or two failures, a happy person may keep plugging away for quite some time and many failures.

On the one hand this is good–a happy person is almost guaranteed more success than a person suffering from depression, simply through innocent and even naïve persistence. Again, this is one of those unfair things that saddens me and makes me well aware that I’m living life on its lowest difficulty setting. But there is an insidious part of it–sometimes a happy person will waste large chunk of his or her life on a fruitless pursuit. They will decide to become an artist, and after a truly stunning number of failures will keep going, even though it is clear to any objective observer that the pursuit is fruitless.

So happy people are sometimes guilty of wasting their life following unachievable dreams. And make no mistake about it–this can have devastating consequences on their family and loved ones.

I’ll give you one example: When I lost my job in 2001, I was thoroughly confident that I could re-launch the publication I had successfully run in the mid-nineties. Despite setback after setback, I continued to plunge ahead. I neglected to take very important safety measures–sell my house early, sell the car, circle the wagons. The kinds of emergency measures you need to take when you lose a job I just ignored. Why? Because I knew that everything would work out.

Things didn’t work out.

As a result, I put my wife and my children through much greater stress and heartache than they needed to. My optimism caused a huge number of major financial issues in my life. In the end we made it through, but my innate happy take on life pretty much caused pain to many others.

So part of the bad side of being happy all the time is that you are sometimes irrationally happy. It is good to sometimes be sad, to think pessimistically and plan accordingly. In short, it is probably better to be a realist than happy or depressed, if not for yourself than for your friends and family. The stresses that roll off of a happy person can have serious negative effects on others. That’s bad.

In the end, even this entry is an exercise in happy optimism. I’m writing it from the optimistic assumption that other happy people are just like me, so that this would be of value to describing to others how happy people think. But what if they’re not? What if I’m some kind of odd exception, and that happy people are really just annoying assholes? What if I’m an annoying asshole? What if happy people are cool and I’m just deluded?

Nah, I’m sure that’s not the case. I’m now sending this entry off to Gwen.

And I’m happy about it.


3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Jake Kerr on Optimism

  1. Happy people are definitely annoying assholes but you are the best of a bad bunch! 😉

    Seriously, I started reading this with a wince, wondering how innate happiness could make a mental health post – but this is great!

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it? I was wondering how *this* post would go over on *this* blog, but it really does seem to fit. Also, I think there’s a difference between ‘happy’ and ‘optimistic’ – but if you can get them both going at once, all the better.

  2. Okay. That WAS a bit annoying. But also sort of nice. So ‘conflicted’ would describe my reaction to this piece in just one word — if, say, I had to hurry off and isolate.

    I know people just like this writer in my own sphere. My business partner is one. Sometimes I will stare at him like you would a specimen behind a sheet of glass, just observing his happy fricking habits. Wondering what the hell is wrong with him.

    I often feel like I would like to be like him. But my pessimism has actually saved our asses a couple of times, which then leaves me vigilantly committed to maintaining my paranoia. Although on other occasions his unEarthly optimism has winched my head out of some pretty dark ditches.

    So I guess you could say it takes all kinds. Or you could take my preferred position that ‘all kinds’ is just what we got…

    Interesting piece. But now I need to be alone.


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