Updated: Sep 7
As they entered the Italian takeaway shop looking a little twitchy, I knew something wasn’t quite right. Two stood in front of me glancing at the menu I’d cheerily popped in front of them after welcoming them to Pizza e Pasta with my best grin. I was exhausted after a long week at school and often found Friday night shifts drenching – and we were nearing closing time. The other three hung around outside, curiously surveying the surroundings.
In the three years I’d worked there, I’d become used to serving people who had manicured fingernails, neat haircuts, and pricy perfume that entered the small shop before they did. These guys had matted clothing and multi-coloured splatters of dirt on their boots. I felt quite chuffed to have them in our shop – they made a change from the norm and I felt honoured that though they may not have much to spend on a Friday night takeaway, they’d chosen us for this treat.
After I’d chatted them through a few things they still didn’t seem to know what they wanted – and why would they, when they didn’t frequent this kind of place? I pointed out things that other customers really enjoyed (on the more affordable side of the menu) and asked them what kinds of things they liked. During this interaction I noticed the body language of my co-workers change. They’d all grown very aware and were watching the men with interest. I got it – it’s pretty normal for us to be cautious of things that seem a little out of place. I felt more evolved than them and continued giving my best service to a group of people who’d probably never return to our shop.
It wasn’t long before I had guns to my head and we were being loaded into a back room where the thieves opened the safe and cleared our cash till. Later that evening, when all was gone, and we counted ourselves lucky to be unharmed, I remember feeling an sense of dread and stupidity. Every person in our shop knew what was going to happen to us the moment the group approached us. I was the only one who didn’t sense any danger, and in that moment, actually considered myself more conscious than others.
I’ve always been a positive optimist. In my twenties I was the person who you read about in novels – throwing myself into toxic jobs and relationships believing they’d get better when they really had no chance. I let my positive thinking override warning signs and tangible evidence in front of me. In fact, the harder things became, the harder I used to work at getting them on track. Though I used to see my inextinguishable positivity as a strength, now I see it as one of my greatest development areas.
Positivity, used correctly, can be good – really good. But it needs to be coupled with realism. Simon Sinek’s recent short video on Optimism vs Positivity was incredibly thought-provoking watch for me. It reminded me of Jim Collin’s reference to the Stockdale Paradox. Stockdale was in a prisoner of war camp for many years. When questioned how he’d survived such horrific brutality he shared that in his experience you need to be realistic about a situation while believing that the future will turn out well. He balanced realism (often referred to by Collins as ‘confronting the brutal facts’) with optimism. Sinek thinks about things slightly differently and sees positivity as a blind state of mind while optimism is positivity coupled with realism – which really resonates with me.
Today as I look out the window, I think back to that moment in the pizza shop. While my naivety during the interaction didn’t harm me on that occasion, the reality of understanding that those five men had the potential to hurt me, could have helped me out of danger – I could have left out the back exit when I saw them coming, or pressed the emergency button. At the very least I could have prepared myself better psychologically, readying myself with resilience to handle the moments that followed.
I know I’ll always be the person who naturally sees a half full glass, and occasionally feels frustrated by the many risk-mindful people I surround myself with (who add huge value to my world). In March when the world started to lock down I jumped into my stress head thinking: ‘this will be three months and then we’ll be back on track.’ I cheered everyone along in my usual way with a ‘we can get through this’ and ‘it won’t be very long’. I didn’t prepare myself for the reality that eight months later there’d still be no sign of us returning to anything ‘normal’ anytime soon, during a time that’s reshaped how we live, work and interact with others.
As I prepare myself for the next few months, I’m focusing on trying to remain optimistic but realistic. I know we’ll all find ourselves in better times, but these times right now are hard. And I’ll leave it there, because that’s the reality.