‘There Must Be A Pony In Here Somewhere!’

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If you’re old enough to remember simpler times, you’ll recall this title as the punch-line to one of President Reagan’s favorite jokes. The gag revealed not only Reagan’s engaging sense of humor, but also a lot about his political philosophy and his outlook on life.

The essence of the story goes something like this. It’s Christmas morning and two young brothers hurriedly amble towards the Christmas tree to discover their gifts. On one side lay piles of wonderful toys for one of the boys. He looked at it and sorrowfully said, “They’ll all be broken in a day or two.” The other boy’s gift, on the other side of the tree, was nothing but a pile of manure. He quickly grabbed a shovel and began to dig, joyfully telling his dour sibling, “There’s must be a pony in here somewhere!”

It’s the age-old tale of the wonders of optimism contrasted with the annoyance of pessimism. For Reagan, it was an allegory of both America and mankind in general. There are those who continually look on the bright side. They become the achievers. And then there are those who remained mired in the darkness. They slowly fade away.

OK, they don’t just fade away. They have an awful tendency to annoy everyone in the process. If you haven’t guessed it, I generally fall under the classification of “optimist.” Which only goes to show you that optimists can be snide, too.

But before we get too far away from Reagan’s joke, you might be interested to know how it has evolved over the century or more of its existence.

First of all, it’s not really Reagan’s. He just told a variation of the same funny story that had been repeated for decades.

Among the earliest recorded variations was documented in the November 1901 edition of Advertising Experience. Within it’s hundreds of pages is the Proceedings of the Agate Club of Chicago, held on December 20th. The Agate Club (an organization of the representative special agents for the leading periodicals), in its own words, stood for “all that is good in advertising.”

Following a short but spirited introduction, J.E. Verree, President of the Agate Club, introduced William E. Mason, then Junior Senator from Illinois who was serving as Chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Postal Laws in the Senate. Near the end of his speech, Mason spoke of a little boy looking at the horse manure he received in his stocking Christmas morning and happily said, “Well, Santa Claus is all right. I think he brought me a pony, but he must have got away.”

Strangely, for all the association with optimism, the first iterations of this joke always had the pony getting away. It wasn’t until 1953 (in an Alcoholics Anonymous newsletter published in Cleveland) that we finally see the “There’s must be a pony in here somewhere!” punchline.

Incidentally, the December 1901 Agate Club meeting might best be remembered for the lecture of Professor Walter D. Scott of the Northwestern University which immediately followed Mason’s talk. His comments on “The Psychology of Involuntary Attention as Applied to Advertising” are considered foundational when it comes to advertising as we understand it today.

Scott’s points impact you today in two ways, both as a buyer and as a seller. As you might be curious about them, allow me a short digression from optimism since these are equally practical to you.

The basic goal of all advertising is attraction. Simply put, advertising seeks first and foremost to gain your attention. Scott conducted experiments specifically for the Agate Club and developed six principles associated with gaining your attention:

  1. The absence of distractions
  2. The intensity of the shock
  3. The vibrance of the contrast
  4. The volume of repetition
  5. The ease of understanding
  6. The force of the feeling aroused

The next time you want to gain someone’s attention, remember these six principles. Conversely, the next time you want to buy something, make sure you haven’t been lured into making a regrettable decision by checking your susceptibility to these six principles.

In fact, you might say I’m optimistic that you will have these six principles written on the back of your hand so you could be more successful in achieving what you want.

Will everyone do this? Probably not. Will those who suffer learn from this oversight. Eventually, with enough suffering, probably yes.

And therein lies the ultimate lesson of optimism:

Optimism First Requires Experiencing Failure

Despite our best laid plans, life is full of twists and turns, ups and downs, zigs and zags. Optimists aren’t afraid to meet these unexpected obstacles head-on. In fact, to truly be an optimist, you have to have the experience of not getting your way.

Why is that important? When you don’t get your way, when things don’t go as planned, you’re forced to seek alternatives. You either spend the time to walk around the mountain or you spend the energy to tunnel through it. Either way, you’re getting to the other side. The mountain won’t stop you.

Doesn’t that make a good motto for an optimist?

“The Mountain Won’t Stop Me”

Besides, if there’s a mountain in the way, there must be something really good on the other side.

Maybe even a pony.

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