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A Conversation with Josh Caplan

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Josh Caplan, of Shadyside, a master's candidate at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz School of Public Policy & Management, founded a chapter of Optimist International last fall. The club welcomes anyone who lives around the CMU campus -- even pessimists.

Optimists are born, not made. So what is the point of joining the club?

The name is reflective of the mission of the club, which is to bring out positive experiences for children. So, you can be, by nature, a pessimistic person and still join the Optimist International. We foster these projects and programs that are going to benefit kids. You can be the grumpiest person of the bunch and still be an Optimist and do good work. [Being optimistic] is not a prerequisite for joining the club.

Why do you think Carnegie Mellon needs a chapter?

I became a member while I was in the Peace Corps [in October 2003]. One of my colleagues in the places I worked, in Grenada, invited me to join ... and it coincided with the Peace Corps mission. When I got to CMU [in 2005], there is no conveniently located chapter, although we have two regionally close Optimist chapters. I wanted to have one right here. I thought it'd be a great thing for college students to get involved in.

When did you realize you were an optimist?

That's the way I live my life, as far back as my memory goes. I'm an optimistic person. When things are tough, things are going bad, it never brings me down. If I'm sick, I don't look at the fact that I'm miserable. ... So it's sort of like a lifestyle. I always have a positive attitude in everything I do. Each new day is a day to do something positive. And that's long before I got involved in Optimist International.

What is the most common misconception you've encountered about your club?

The Optimist club is not all about a bunch of people getting together to smile all the time. It's not an anti-pessimist club, and it has nothing to do with happiness versus sadness. It's just a positive name attached to an organization focused on helping kids.

There are many depressing things going on right now in the world: war, terrorism ... is there any cause for optimism?

The best place and time to make a difference in a person's life is as early as possible. We're focused on kids, to help them -- so that that person has a chance to grow and lead a better life than [what] the child was given. And [this will] ultimately influence the world in a positive way going forward.

If someone is pessimistic by nature, would joining the club help?

We'd hope that by doing good work, it will lift that person's spirit and maybe overcome that pessimism. A person's inner motivations and emotions are not going to keep him from doing good work, but we would hope that that could happen, as a result.

Have you seen that happen?

I can't say I've come across genuinely pessimistic people. Maybe my optimism rubs off, but I haven't been faced with so harsh pessimists that I had to see a big turnaround in character like that.

Maybe because you're an optimist.

It might be. Maybe I just can't see the pessimistic side.

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