North Central College alumna Jackie Mitchell ’99 Nelson TEDx talk probes optimism

Feb 27, 2015

North Central College alumna Jackie Mitchell ’99 Nelson delivered a TEDx talk about how maintaining an adventurous, optimistic outlook can transform lives.

Nelson was among 12 presenters Feb. 13 at the inaugural TEDxNorthCentralCollege event. Topics were inspired by the theme “Changing the World for Good.” Her talk was titled, “Your Step-by-Step Guide to Injury-Free, Xtreme Optimism.”

Nelson, of Chicago, is director of celebrity and entertainment engagement for the American Red Cross. For several years she has carried out carefully formulated experiments in her life to discover what brings her greater happiness and fulfillment. She is a fervent advocate for the value of practical optimism.

“This talk is about vitality—extreme optimism,” she said. “As a Red Cross humanitarian and a disaster responder I get to observe where optimism succeeds and where it fails in a crisis. I’ve carefully studied how people rise and how they shine after a storm.”

Nelson encouraged her listeners to pay attention to when they’re happy and do those things more, “even when you’re afraid—and with gratitude.” Her “experiments” consist of doing something that feels good for 60 days “just to see what happens.”

“Is my life better if I run every day, or if I meditate, or if I go for a walk with a friend?” she asked. “If it doesn’t work for me I never, ever have to do it again. If it does work for me it’s not that hard to adopt it as a habit because my body kind of longs for it after 60 days.”

Small changes, such as limiting herself to just one cup of coffee per day, have dramatically transformed her life.

“I learned to deeply enjoy a thing,” she said. “I learned to wring every drop of enjoyment out of not only the one cup of coffee but of all these other things that were already in my life. I learned how to savor.”

Nelson said she also plays for at least a minute, every day, which has created priceless memories, been a source of energy and unlocked her creativity. Another thing she does is ask for help, every day.

“I hate the feeling of asking for help but I love everything that transpires after I do it,” she said. “So I’m going to ask for help, every day. Both of these scare me, and I’m guessing change probably scares you, too.”

“Extreme optimists” overcome their fears and learn to balance their positive outlook with a realistic grasp of what is happening in their lives, she said.

“Optimism is intelligent,” she said. “It’s a real thing that creates real things. So next time someone treats you like you’re living in a fantasy, see it for what it is: it’s cowardice, and have mercy.”

Nelson also encouraged listeners to “wield their mighty gratitude.” She’s met with families in the aftermath of tornadoes and been amazed that people who have lost their homes, neighborhoods and all their possessions can still be grateful to have escaped serious injury.

“When I go on the ground to a disaster the one thing I hear the most from survivors and volunteers is, ‘We are so lucky.’ These people are still grateful,” she said.

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers topics ranging from science to business to global issues. Independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.