Without exactly understanding how or why I learned about being positive from loving Aussie Rules as an adolescent, reading a myriad of newspaper stories about footballers’ achievements and success on the field inspired my life. These stories often detailed diverse players transcending injury setbacks, personal problems and confidence issues among other things. Coaches were also often credited with instilling players’ self-belief to ensure they could overcome adversity to fulfil their potential
Intrinsic to their strategy was a positive psychology, dismissing players’ self-doubt and self-recrimination as antipathetic to winning. Or that’s how I interpreted my perusal of their success. Likewise during my schooldays, some teachers’ positivism enabled me to develop self-belief and confidence as a bright and capable achiever, reinforced by my father’s strong appreciation about my academic results and to a lesser extent, sadly, my mother’s.
At the same time as believing in myself as an older teenager, there were also doubts about exactly what I could achieve and what my capabilities actually encompassed, but my self-belief and confidence were at least then strong enough to undertake challenges of the unknown as well as confronting the possibility of failure. Understanding this dual reality, I believed what I could achieve was very much up to me and under my control and direction.
At 16, I was in Year 12 and a slack student of study, my mother telling me that if I didn’t apply myself more to academia, it didn’t matter that much as I could repeat Year 12 the next year because I was younger than my fellow classmates. Indeed I was, but while she had a valid point about my needing to study more, I also realised her negativism towards me, offering by being too young as an excuse if I failed. Determined not to fail, I also needed to do more than pass to win a scholarship to pay the expensive university fees my parents could not afford. This was pre-Whitlam and attending university cost thousands of dollars which the scholarship covered. Realising my ‘fate’ was in my own hands I started studying, achieving good results to win the scholarship I desperately wanted. However, as I studied hard, putting in long hours at my desk, I also countenanced that if I did study and then failed, I would have to face that too, unable to use not studying as an excuse, however conveniently easy or comforting it might have been. Maybe I thought I’d have to face the fact that I was not as bright as I believed but while I occasionally contended with that possibility, I shoved these negative wonderings aside with a much more significant positive and purposeful attitude.
At 18, a year after completing my first year at university and passing with honours too, I applied for a cadetship in journalism, without knowing whether I’d succeed as a journalist or not. Passionately interested in current affairs and cognisant I could converse with an array of different people because I was actually interested in them as I’d already enjoyed in my young life, I really had no idea whether I could write well enough to succeed as a journalist. When I obtained my cadetship, I also faced the possibility of failure, taking a risk with myself and applying the motto: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained!” believing it was better to try and fail than never try at all. I’ve lived that motto my whole life, succeeding as a journalist when I wanted to.
It seems today that for too many young people, negativism about their aspirations shapes their destiny and inhibits them from leaping into the unknown to take a risk with their selves. Staying cocooned in a comfort zone, however mundane and prosaic, often seems preferable to risking failure and testing themselves with uncomfortable and difficult new challenges, be it on a football field or in the workplace; likewise, taking risks making new friends, forming new relationships and even living in strange, new cities.
The Age newspaper today featured an interview with the coach of 2016 AFL premiers, The Bulldogs, Luke Beveridge, who championed the cause of seeking zones outside a comfortable perimeter, not just for footballers and coaches but I inferred many people too who live in a comfort zone unthinkingly. The Bulldogs’ team was plagued by injuries to several of their best players early in the season last year, but Beveridge seemingly ‘inspired’ the less acclaimed players to achieve beyond what most football pundits predicted. Apparently, he enjoys living in an ‘uncomfortable’ zone with positivism his philosophy..
By comparison, my team, Carlton, and its new coach, Brendon Bolton, have already ‘warned’ fans that 2017 demands their ‘patience’ as young players now at the club need time, experience and maturity to succeed. Reading between the lines, negativism permeates this approach, no doubt the players realising, albeit perhaps unconsciously, not that much is expected of them because they are young; similarly as my mother once tried to ‘excuse’ my possible failure. I have no idea whether the team’s players are good enough or will be in a couple of years, but making excuses before the season has even started is tantamount to ushering in failure before the ball is bounced for the first game. It seems Bolton already accepts defeat urging supporters to do the same. There is an adage in sport that it’s not about winning per se but how you play the game and to play your best you need self-belief, confidence and teamwork as much as skills, stamina and strategies. For me, Carlton’s coach, hailed as a former teacher who knows how to educate, has already failed in performance in one quintessential quality; he’s not positive. Realistic is one thing, but sport has many stories where competitors have been dismissed as ‘not good enough’ only to surprise others with success down the track at another club or in another sport; so too, in life.
Testimony of how the psychology of positivism can transform lives is lucidly illuminated in an 80’s film called Stand & Deliver, a true story about a young teacher who ‘inspired’ failing maths students in a socio-economic disadvantaged school in the US to achieve brilliant, successful results despite others dismissing these students as failures and no-hopers. By applying positive encouragement to the students to work hard, enjoy the work and be interested in personal success; that is, instilling them with self-belief and confidence by respecting their minds, he defied what his fellow teaching colleagues decreed. How often do some teachers regard students as ‘dumb’, unrealistic in their adolescent aspirations or delusional about their destiny; so too sadly, their own parents and friends. Many well-meaning people who have no self-belief instead project their inadequacies onto their offspring, friends and others, as if anyone can know what a young person is actually capable of at their age unless they try, work hard and invest the time and energy into making their dreams come true. Moreover, we can always discover new capabilities at whatever age as I still do now.
Too often these well-intentioned people are wanting to protect those they care about from failure, making mistakes and being hurt, but these realities are the essence of living life as much as enjoyment and pleasure. How many people actually think about what they really enjoy and then try to make a living out of that enjoyment? Another adage I’ve adhered to is about making your hobby your job and that’s how I’ve lived my life though it has not always been in my control. Being positive didn’t always suffice. That’s only something I realised as I got older, recognising no man is an island and however much we might be good at what we do, others’ attitudes, opinions and beliefs can affect the outcome in our lives. It’s not always about ‘up to one self” as I believed in my youth. Indeed, The Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr, 1892-1971, although godly in ethos, needs to be appreciated as a realistic understanding of how we can determine our own lives while co-existing with others. It states:
“God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.”
But staying positive despite the setbacks and disappointments is integral to pursuing dreams and never surrendering them acknowledging there are always new dreams to create, new imaginings to entertain and new friends to meet, however they might tumble and toss in the course of living our lives.
What I do find of great sadness is not about me specifically, but the mental health industry professionals and too many medicos who ‘write’ off people simply because they’ve experienced a mental health issue. Meeting many bright, intelligent and thoughtful, young people during my time in ‘prison’ and contacting them after release, I felt sorry they were not working or even engaging in pursuits which they enjoyed. My experience was that while I was disrespected, dismissed and discounted as ‘mad’, the professionals, so called experts, could not erode my self-belief and confidence, even 37 years ago when I first encountered shrinks, returning to journalism and writing as soon as I overcame the malevolent effect of the ‘drugs’ that tragically affected my body and mind. These young people I met in prison seemed to have no self-belief or confidence at all, magnified, emphasised and reinforced by the shrinks working there who as far as I could ascertain, were contributing even more to these young people’s self-doubts, insecurities and sense of inadequacy by putting them down intellectually and disrespecting their minds too. They seemed to believe they needed to live on disability pensions for the rest of their lives because they were incapable and mentally deficient. This attitude was all pervasive, without question or rational understanding and sadly, shared by their parents and families who believed the shrinks, too.
The reality is they’re not the only ones, as our society, for wont of a better generalisation, too glibly and irrationally labels many people negatively (not just those with mental health issues), offering them no hope of a better life to follow their dreams, at whatever age. I’ve known many people in my life too frightened to ‘test’ themselves out there in the big, wide world, scared to attempt anything beyond just passing exams that mostly involve having a good memory for facts and a couple of ideas usually plagiarised from textbooks. I’m not talking about taking blind risks that might imperil life itself, but calculated risks where self-belief and confidence are paramount. The courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference is pertinent to my belief about putting oneself out there, accepting the outcome might not always be the one we hope for, want or even expect. Some issues are simply about accepting “the things I cannot change” as the Serenity Prayer states too.
Maintaining a psychology of positivism, even when others evince only negativity, is essential in enriching life for ourselves by exploring all myriad of opportunities, be they of our own making or those we may want to embrace that others offer us. It is ultimately about individual choice and having the self-belief and confidence to make choices that enhance our lives and well-being. The psychology of positivism must reign sacrosanct.