“It’s going to be okay.” This is not meant as a simplistic reassurance of positivity. The “okay” does not equate with things turning out exactly the way that we might want. It doesn’t even mean it’s going to turn out in a way that seems favorable in the near future. The “okay” refers to being part of something much bigger than any one perspective. The ultimate purpose of life is beyond the difficult circumstances. There is good. We should look for, love, and live into the good.
Reading the news can be so demoralizing: climate change, war, fires, epidemics, rogue AI, mental health challenges, authoritarianism, extreme partisanship. But humans need hope. In order for us to create a positive future, we need to be able to have hope that there can be a positive future. What is the “Case for Optimism” over the next decades? What can we look forward to and hope for to help us strive for a more positive future?
In this series, we aim to explore and highlight the positive aspects, potential breakthroughs, and reasons for optimism that lie ahead in the coming decade and beyond. We are talking to authors, researchers, entrepreneurs, scientists, futurists, and other experts who can shed light on the exciting advancements, innovations, and opportunities that await us. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Deb Harrison.
Deb Harrison is a growth and change catalyst and kindness advocate, helping individuals and organizations to adapt, learn, and use their gifts, improving performance and well-being. Her love of learning and teaching, along with her willingness to both roll up her sleeves and to share candidly about her experiences make her a trusted guide as a consultant, coach, speaker and author. She’s worked with 400+ companies in 20+ industries; was a panelist for Harvard Business School Online’s 2023 Global Event for International Women’s Day; and has been quoted by media outlets like U.S. News & World Report, NTD Good Morning, Fortune, Newsweek, The Council for Exceptional Children, and The Wall Street Journal.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Thank you for interviewing me. I’m honored to be a part of this series. I think it is critically important for us to talk about optimism.
On a rainy night in March of 1976, my father had just gotten home from the hospital when the doctor who had told him he could go home and get some rest, called to tell him that he should come back to the hospital quickly because the baby was coming soon. My parents had previously chosen the name Elizabeth for a girl. However, having lost a baby boy at birth four years earlier, two years prior to my brother being born, my mother said the thought of the fate of the character Elizabeth in Lousia May Alcott’s Little Women, one of her favorite books, made her uneasy. She held me in her arms, and they named me Deborah Jean. One month early, I was tiny and feisty.
I was raised in the Shawangunk Mountains, in a house at the top of Upper Mountain Road where it levels off after a steady climb. We were surrounded by forest. At some point a picket fence was built around the small section of lawn. We had many pets over the years, a plentiful vegetable and herb garden and the rich woods to explore. My brother and I adventured for hours, going far beyond our four acres. You might have found me climbing a tree, checking out critters under rocks, riding my bike through the woods, talking to God, curled up with a book, writing, or playing in the dirt (all of which you still might find me doing). Books are part of my earliest memories and remained a constant throughout my childhood, along with ample lessons about the world around me. I sponged it all in — how to tie a knot, novels, making a campfire, catching, and throwing, the names of plants and birds, the way to lay in stillness and watch wildlife, and more. My parents nurtured a beautiful love of nature and of learning.
Beautiful things do not need to live alone in beauty to be beautiful.
There was also deep hurt, anger, alcoholism, and abuse. There was violence. Feeling often powerless, I struggled with change and uncertainty. Likely both from genetics and the trauma, I battled depression and anxiety. I was a successful student and athlete, passionate about helping others, but I felt insecure and out of place. Through that exhaustion, I grew resilience, a thirst for learning, and a brilliant curiosity. Along with exercise and music, writing and photography were and still are a way for me to process, release and celebrate all my feelings.
Both of my parents became sober when I was an adult, and the little girl from Upper Mountain Road still celebrates within me. Sobriety does not necessarily mean instant reformation, but it starts the healing journey.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Somewhere around 10 years ago, after one of my pivots, my brother told me that he was impressed by my ability to bounce — to change direction, learn new information, and adapt as necessary. Hearing that from him stands out as a highlight moment for me. I was grateful for those words and for the skills I’ve been given to keep growing and learning. That is the subtext of my career story.
As I mentioned earlier, my childhood brought intense challenges and also created a remarkable foundation of learning. I saw regularly how growth and loss can live closely together. It piqued something in me at a young age — a quest of sorts, for continually seeking out ways to find and nurture the best in others and myself.
Not wanting anyone to feel out of place, alone or hopeless, I had been drawn to “coaching” others since I was a child. My gift for guiding and inspiring others partnered with my love of learning, curiosity for the human experience and passion for writing led me to teaching. I started a fulfilling job teaching literature and writing in a public high school in Orange County, New York in 1998. I also ran a youth ministry program, and did photography and videography, and some copywriting work.
I loved teaching, but there was something in me that was nudging me that I was not fully embracing all that I was called to do, especially with my writing. It’s for this reason, along with what follows, that I say that I became a full-time consultant part by choice and part by circumstance.
I went on maternity leave ahead of schedule in 2005. After a complicated pregnancy, my son was born with brain damage. When I returned to teaching, it was part-time. Switching from full-time to part-time meant severing my tenure. In early 2011, influenced by the passing of one of our students in 2010, another teacher and I formed an organization called A Teacher’s Light and started co-writing a book called Empowering Youth with Purpose. In June of that year my part-time position was cut with the district’s budget reduction. At that time, I had become a single mom with a 6-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter and was facing some health challenges. I remember thinking, “It’s going to be ok, but how?”
My best friend since elementary school was doing consultant work for a fin-tech startup that needed copywriting for a new website launch. She made the introduction, and they brought me onboard as a consultant. I was attending meetings with the leadership team in order to understand the company’s mission and goals for the purposes of site content. I made some suggestions for improvements to processes and procedures. They were well-received. I was then invited to also do operations and marketing consulting, including business development and strategy. I thrived. That company then ended up being acquired about eight months later. The acquiring company decided to bring me over to work with a new company they were starting. A little over a year later that new company was shut down. I was becoming accustomed to work uncertainty and change.
Over the next years, new opportunities came from within my network. I became involved in projects across various industries and did well with the shifting of gears between companies, industries, and projects. I became a go-to person for executives, founders, and other leaders, who would seek out my opinion on matters of organizational and individual growth. I continued assisting people through changing circumstances in their lives. Having wrangled with change, I was eager to help individuals and organizations adapt, grow, and maximize their talents. I was using my gifts of teaching, leading, and curiosity-driven solutioning all in one. The results and feedback were great. I want to note, though, that I was continually underselling and undervaluing myself (insecurity does not just shake off), even though I was showing others how to not do that. I had to make a concerted effort to change that narrative.
Last year (2022), as things were shifting with some client work, I felt called to step outward more. For years I had been wanting to do this, even starting to at times, but I had been hesitant to promote myself. I had to get beyond that. It was clear to me that I needed to increase the visibility of my services, expand my reach, and focus on my writing and speaking in order to help more people. I committed to that by investing time and money into my growth. I dug into business development, attending webinars, and participating in online events. I increased my presence on social media and built up my website. I made many new connections. I joined a resource-rich mastermind, which is filled with people who have been incredibly nourishing to my momentum. I’m repeatedly reminded that people need to know about me in order to learn from me. This is just the beginning. I’m being intentional with considering the big picture. I am blessed with family and friends cheering me on, especially my amazing husband and three children.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My mother was an incredible example of tenacity and courage. Before having children, she was the first female accounting manager at IBM’s East-Fishkill Branch. She lost her first child at birth on Mother’s Day in 1972 and stopped working in order to improve her ability to have children. She filled the house with the sound of the piano and was a natural teacher. She was tough and persistent when it came to challenges. She climbed on the roof to put down shingles, cooked dinner, and cared for sick pets.
She achieved sobriety in 1999. She battled cancer in 2004 and went into remission. She was diagnosed with cancer again in March of 2016. She passed away a year later. She loved God and her family enduringly.
One day in 2016, listening to her matter-of-factly speak about what she needed to do next in her treatment, I told her I was just so amazed by her strength throughout her illness and the other very hard times she had faced, and asked her how she did it. She said, “My whole life, whenever I felt something was too much to handle, I would hear a voice telling me, ‘You can do this.’ ”
She passed that voice along to me.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I think each person should see themselves as the greatest project they will ever work on. With that said, I am working on myself every day, which helps me be best equipped to pour into what I do and everyone I interact with. To be the best version of myself, I need to acknowledge my progress and take note of areas for growth and learning.
One of my favorite things to communicate is that we all have unique gifts and amazing things happen when we acknowledge them and line them up with the needs in the world. I want people to see the goodness in themselves and use it. In addition to being a theme in my writing, this is at the core of my consulting and coaching work. I’m helping individuals and organizations maximize their skills and resources. Examples include career and leadership coaching, organizational change workshops, and business process improvement projects. It jazzes me up to see people’s gifts being used. We are all such remarkable beings!
Additionally, I’m really excited about getting more of my writing done for publication. My writing ties in with my desire to help people to see and be their best. I share openly about my life. To start, this includes a poetry book and a companion book that tells the story behind the poems. I’m also working on a collection of autobiographical essays, a handful of short stories, a guide book, and a fun book about…you’ll have to wait. As I say this all, I realize I’m calling in accountability to get it all done. Whoever reads this can join my accountability crew.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, faith. [A deep breath.] Faith in the unique gift each person is. Faith in the light we can each shine. Faith in the power and purpose of kindness. Faith in the infinite love of God. I had to make an intentional and diligent choice in faith at times. It’s not something that has simply floated along with me. There have been times where doubt has come at me aggressively, and it felt dark around me. I needed to choose to keep walking in faith. I’ve written some poems that sang of faith during times where I was experiencing deep uncertainty and doubt. It was like I was writing a love letter to myself, promising me that I would keep carrying the light of faith. I try to hold on to faith with gratitude, reminding myself of the many reasons to be thankful.
Next is my curiosity. I love to submerge myself in my curiosity and to spread that to others — an openness to continuing to learn. There is so much that we can learn from one another and everything around us. I’m fascinated by life’s colors, corners, and lessons. I’m curious to see and encourage the gifts in others and myself. A person who was a deep part of my spiritual growth in my 20’s told someone how very special my deep appreciation and enjoyment for the little things in life is. I think that comes from my curiosity, my wanting to take in as much as I can from this incredible world we live in.
And perseverance. From learning something new to overcoming a setback, I concentrate on pushing forward. A high school coach once called me “tough as nails,” after I ran a race with a painful injury that happened during the race. It’s a grit that comes from knowing where I’ve been and that I have a message to share — we all do. There was a cartoon I saw years ago. I haven’t been able to find it again. It was two people watching the word “hope” bounce across a table and one of them saying something along the lines of, “It keeps going like that, doesn’t it?” I want to be that hope, going onward. With anxiety and depression being part of my life since childhood and having lived through trauma, I had to discover a way to believe past the sorrow even when I could barely comprehend there being a light at the end of the tunnel, much less seeing one. During one of my episodes with intense depression, my physician told me, “You need to be a little better before you can be good and good before you can be great and great before you can be perfect.” That is so true. It is one step at a time. It is really hard sometimes, and we have to keep going.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about the case for optimism. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. When we refer to being optimistic about the future, what exactly do we mean?
I believe optimism is applying gratitude forward. It’s a conscious choice to put stock in the ways we can make a positive impact and to celebrate the good. There’s a lot of good.
Optimism is not a dissociation from or lack of awareness of the challenges that exist, nor does it mean feeling good all the time. It’s a commitment to feeding into the positive.
Why is it important to have an optimistic outlook about the future?
Optimism, like hope, is a strong foundation for ongoing efforts to look for solutions with creativity, consistency, and tenacity. It is easy for people to not want to try when they think there is no point because things are just bad or mostly bad. When we nurture belief in positive opportunities, we are more apt to create them.
What are some reasons people might feel pessimistic about the future, and how do you suggest we address these concerns?
The ability we have right now to instantly and continuously be informed of the problems with the economy, war, climate change, political division, technological uncertainty, and vast inequity, both globally and locally, can put us in an almost steady state of fight or flight. These are all valid reasons to not feel optimistic. I ache when I read about them. There are also stories of joy, compassion, and victory.
We have the power to be optimism, each of us. Rather than posting comments of derision or only spreading stories about the hard realities, we can offer solutions. Being kind in discussions on all those issues can lead to remarkable resolutions being born from the sharing of different perspectives. I think of the analogy of people standing at a bowl with really long spoon handles, only able to avoid starving by feeding one another. We can learn so much from one another when we truly listen.
We are in a time where there is a thirst for personal growth and efforts to understand communication and diversity. We can speak into those with faith.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Next Ten and Twenty Years?” (Please share a story or an example for each.)
- Learning Potential. The expansion of shared learning and teaching is enormous. There are vast numbers of tools and sites, both paid and free, for accessing and sharing information and interacting with experts in a variety of fields around the globe. This knowledge sharing opens the doors to discovering areas of interest and excellence that some would never have had the chance to encounter.
- Attention to Change. Studies in the last couple of years concluded that the average adult attention span is now 8.25 seconds, less than the 9 seconds of a goldfish. If you’re still reading this article, you beat that. You shouldn’t let data that speaks of decline define you. You can be the change.
- The Gifts are Many. Every single person is a unique miracle with special gifts. If you feel you haven’t used your gifts as fully as you could or encouraged someone else to use theirs, you can now. Every sunrise is a setup for a new start. You can reach out to new connections and start taking steps towards your best you or your best organization today.
- Kindness is always an option. Kindness heals you and heals others, and it can be simple — holding the door open, letting someone turn in front of you in traffic, a smile. Multiple studies have shown that both the giving and receiving of kindness can elevate endorphins, pleasure and healing hormones, and neurotransmitters. In other words, kindness can improve well-being, health, and brain function.
- “It’s going to be okay.” This is not meant as a simplistic reassurance of positivity. The “okay” does not equate with things turning out exactly the way that we might want. It doesn’t even mean it’s going to turn out in a way that seems favorable in the near future. The “okay” refers to being part of something much bigger than any one perspective. The ultimate purpose of life is beyond the difficult circumstances. There is good. We should look for, love, and live into the good.
In what specific areas do you see technology having the most positive impact over the next 10 to 20 years?
There will continue to be improvements in the accuracy and efficiency of medical diagnostics and treatment. The technology will be used for actual diagnosis and will also help to train medical professionals in seeing patterns.
AI will continue to increase accessibility to information and experiences for people with various conditions and disabilities, leading to greater inclusion.
Incredible connections around the globe will continue to be made, allowing people to share ideas and build relationships that will bring remarkable change and joy.
While technology holds immense potential, it can also present challenges. How can we ensure that the progress we make in technology contributes to a more optimistic future and doesn’t exacerbate societal problems?
Careful discernment is necessary as determinations are made about the ways that technological advances can be applied and regulated. There needs to be some oversight. There’s still so much to be determined about what that should look like now. The technology is advancing faster than the regulations. I think there should be ongoing collaboration amongst the developers in order to prevent fortune and fame for some from paving the path forward instead of global improvements in quality of life.
Each of us should be prudent with how we use technology, considering ethics and well-being, both physical and mental.
How do you maintain your optimism during challenging times?
When my optimism falters, I try to catch myself and turn to thinking of things to be grateful for. Prayer and reflection are essential for me. This includes sitting in silence, speaking out loud and writing.
I have notes to myself and signs hanging up, such as, “Believe” and “Inspire” that are physical reminders to me of the light that shines on. I have written down words I have read or heard that bring me joy and comfort. Sometimes I need to physically move my body.
I say the phrase I mentioned in my Top 5 Reasons to be Optimistic, “It’s going to be okay.” Then I think about the many good and wonderful things there are, and I lean into them.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want to lead a Kindness Revolution. We are called to love one another. I think it would be awesome if people got up every day and challenged themselves to be the kindest they could be. How wonderful would that be? This includes kindness to themselves; I am not suggesting letting people be mean to you without boundaries. If everyone committed to being even a little kinder, most problems would be solved. Sharing about kind acts should be seen as one of the coolest things to do.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 😊
I have a lot of respect for Tim Tebow. He uses his notoriety to do incredible things through the Tim Tebow Foundation. Both as an athlete and now as a speaker and driver for change, he strives to live his faith. My family and I talk about how someday I will be a speaker at an event he’s speaking at. I truly believe that. I have his books on my kindle, and my husband bought me his devotional, aptly named Mission Possible. It’s one of the books I start my days with.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I would love to connect with them on one or all of the following platforms:
My website is dharrisonpvd.com
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
Deb Harrison, Growth and Change Catalyst On The Case For Optimism About The Next Ten & Twenty Years was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.