When we started our training organisation 10 years ago we had a student - Paul who had been referred to us by the local Job Centre for mandatory employability skills training. He was reluctant to attend but he knew that his welfare payments would be severed if he failed to show. Paul was in his forties and had spent 25 years in prison. It was clear that he was convinced that no one could help him and he had a seriously negative attitude. He had no work history but we helped him to develop a CV and slowly he started to trust the staff. It was immediately apparent that he was very intelligent and had a lot to offer. He completed the three-month programme and although he did not find work at the end of it, his attitude and self-belief significantly improved. Four years later I bumped into Paul in the local area and he was a changed man. He gloated that he was working in a pharmacy and was pursuing studies in Pharmacy. He expressed his gratitude for the help we had provided and indicated that he was now looking forward to completing his studies and progressing in the workplace.
What does it take for someone to change their life and to embark on a different course? Often it begins with someone believing in them and encouraging them. We showed Paul unconditional love – not judging him or treating him differently because of his checkered past. To this day we do not know what crime he committed because we did not focus on that. What we saw was an individual who needed help, even if he did not know or acknowledge it at the time. We recognised his value and helped him to appreciate that value. We allowed him to be, tailoring a programme that allowed him the flexibility he needed to make the transition. When he fell short we avoided punitive measures prescribed by others. We recognised where he was in his life and we adapted our procedures to suit. In life things are not always how we want them to be or how they should be. Sometimes 60% is enough for if insist on perfection we risk losing the whole.
We do not choose our lives – our life chooses us. We are born into families, cultures, communities – we didn’t choose. Some of us are born with medical conditions – we didn’t choose. A few months ago I received a third international award for the Pocket Learner – an educational development system that enables parents, carers, teachers and others to educate children, particularly those deemed slow learners or those diagnosed with special educational needs. The Pocket Learner arose from frustration with my daughter’s lack of progress at school. She has special needs and I was not convinced that the school was adequately providing for her educational development. I embarked on a programme at home helping her to build her vocabulary and learn to read. I was shocked to see how well she responded! Now my life is dedicated to helping her thrive and at the same time building a system whereby others with circumstances similar to hers can be empowered. I did not choose my life; it chose me.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Spanish island of Lanzarote. I recall the tour guide saying that the island was built on volcanic ash from eruptions which took place over a number of years during the 1730s. The resort still encounters constant drying winds and to combat this they have taken measures to protect their flora including the building of curved walls to protect their grape vines. With its expanse of white buildings set against the black soil and creative protective agricultural infrastructure Lanzarote is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Life thrives even in volcanic ash.
Sometimes we are faced with situations which we think have come to destroy us. We automatically regard them as setbacks when indeed they are setups. They are there to strengthen us, build our resilience and prepare us to impact. It’s only after those moments when we crash and burn that we can rise from the ashes. Those are the moments that we learn the most from; the ones that give us experience that we can use to teach others and save them from unnecessary pain. The pressures of life often squeeze us but just like a tube that produces more when it is put under pressure, so we too are forced to produce when pressure is applied – it is not there to kill us but rather to bring out the best in us.
Had we given up on Paul all those years ago he might not now be looking forward to a career in Pharmacy. He had been scarred but he still had life and thus hope. Had I buried myself in self-pity and fail to recognise that my daughter could be helped the Pocket Learner would not have evolved. Had the authorities decided to abandon Lanzarote, the island would not have become such a wonderful destination for people like me who seek a getaway from time to time. If it’s not dead don’t throw it away - Behind every dark cloud there is a silver lining.
As business owners we often find ourselves on the brink, tempted to throw in the towel. We are hit by internal and external factors that impact adversely on our organisations. A few years ago we experienced a recession and many of us despaired, indeed many did not survive. Those who survived had to dig deeper, become more creative, productive, strategic, resilient. Our organisations were not dead so we did not “throw them away”. Our character grows when we are challenged. When no one or nothing is challenging us we can become complacent and just saunter along, finding comfort in mediocrity. We have to develop mindsets that see problems as opportunities, questions as invitations. We have to be the change we want to see in the world (Mahatma Gandhi); not go with the flow but direct the flow. Those of us in positions of influence should take the opportunity to teach and consistently learn. It is through learning that we are able to teach, through aspiration that we are able to inspire; through giving that we are able to receive.
We should not be afraid to make mistakes for everyone who is successful has experienced failure. We should treat them as mere bumps in the road, growth indicators, lessons of life. When we get off the fence we may trip, fall and even bleed but in the process we build value and even if we fail to achieve our ultimate goals we build our capacity to contribute to humanity by sharing our experiences, passing on valuable and perhaps invaluable information. Every one of us has something to offer; some may have 1 talent, others - 5 and some may even have 10. It’s not the number of skills we have that matters; rather, it’s what we do with them. Where we start doesn’t matter, what counts is where we end up and the distance travelled. Never give up on anyone; indeed don’t give up on yourself and if it’s not dead don’t throw it away.