A quote I once saw in a motivational poster struck me and stuck with me all through the years: “Think not of what could go wrong or why it won’t work; think of how to make it work.” I have since shared the message with my own children and others I see to be in need of a more positive attitude in their work, and in their daily lives.
It is pessimism — the tendency to focus on the negatives and to find fault or weakness in every situation — that could well be our worst enemy as individuals, and as a nation. Over the years, I’ve made the general observation that we Filipinos may have ingrained in us a dysfunctional mindset that instinctively finds reasons why things won’t (or shouldn’t) work, rather than adopt a positive attitude of finding ways to make them work. It could well trace to our history, our education, and/or our politics, but with it, we put needless obstacles on our way to achievement. I’ve wondered if this is why our country has perennially found itself lagging in many things, be it economic performance, social and human development, cultural and political maturity, and overall nation-building. Let me tell some stories to illustrate.
Back in the 1990s, when President Fidel Ramos made a state visit to Indonesia and I was in his Cabinet entourage, we had a private meeting with Filipino community leaders in Jakarta. They told him that when the Indonesians think of something they need to do, say an infrastructure project or government program, they heeded the slogan of a popular sports brand: they “just do it.” The President gave me a wink, and I knew what he had in mind.
The National Economic and Development Authority (Neda), which I headed at the time, had achieved some kind of reputation among other government agencies as being an obstacle to getting government projects underway. With its role of evaluating public investment projects, especially those funded with foreign assistance, Neda had been described as “asking too many questions” or “throwing too many obstacles” in the way of foreign-assisted projects. Some even accused Neda to be guilty of “paralysis by analysis,” often seen to raise new questions after earlier questions had already been resolved with project proponents. Thus, my guidance to the Neda staff during my watch was to work with those agencies in improving their projects to make them work, not behave like difficult inquisitionists as if out to make things more difficult. We were, after all, part of the same government that we all wanted to succeed.
It’s a challenge not in the public sector alone. Recently, I pursued a request to redirect our residential connection to Meralco to avoid thick vegetation currently entangling our service delivery wires. We invested in a utility-grade steel post at our gate to be the new landing point of our service connection, only to be told that they could not use it because of some company policy. Without going into specific details, I will just mention how the field agent who visited us twice on the instructions of the engineer in charge (whose personal attention I truly appreciate), seemed to me to have the same defeatist mindset I’m describing. He seemed determined to come up with new issues to bring up after every previous issue raised had been well answered—as if determined to prove why our proposed solution could not work. In exasperation, I asked him to convey to his superior my appeal that we work together to make it work, rather than keep finding reasons why it won’t. It reminded me of the old Neda whose mindset I had sought to change.
There are countless other instances when we encounter the same defeatist or obstructionist mindset in government or business functionaries, or ordinary fellow citizens. Is this why it takes us ages to adopt crucial reforms even as they have long worked for our neighbors? (Competition law, rice liberalization, and tax reform are examples that come to mind.)
Perhaps it’s time we took a long, hard look at our educational system, and the examples our society’s leaders set, if we want the successor generation of Filipinos to have a “can do” mindset rather than the defeatist one that continues to hold us back.
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