Aim higher; attitude is important

Home of Dr Peter and Fred the friendly snake

The senior nurse (Phyllis Malpas), who manages our Endoscopy department at the Medical University where I work, is the incoming President of the SGNA, the Society for Gastrointestinal Nurses and Associates in USA. Kudos to her and a tribute to her leadership talents. She is making a video for her presidential address, and asked me, and others, to reflect on her theme, which will be  “Aim higher”.

Since I have found the ideas to have been important in my life and work, I take the liberty of sharing them with you. Here goes.

“Per ardua ad astra” is one of my favorite catch phrases. It translates roughly into “Through adversity to the stars”. That phrase is best known as the motto for the British Royal Air Force, of which I was a very junior member many years ago. The RAF paid me to learn to fly when I was a student at Cambridge University. Happily this did not then, or later, lead to much adversity! Obviously, the concept is that challenges can and should be embraced, even welcomed, as stimulants to increased efforts and greater success. We admire people who have triumphed despite great physical problems. I have recently read about Aimee Mullins, who became a star athlete, actress and model, despite losing both legs at the age one year, and Juliane Koepke, who, at age 17, survived 11 days in the dense and dangerous Peruvian jungle after a 10,000 feet fall from a plane. Who can fathom the courage of Stephen Hawking, still tweaking the world of science  while communicating by computer by twitching his cheek, or Jean-Dominique Bauby with “locked in” syndrome, who wrote his marvelous book “The diving bell and the butterfly” by blinking his eye as the alphabet was scrolled in front of him. Read all about them on Wikipedia.

What drives such people, or, what is missing in those who falter in the face of much smaller obstacles? More important, what has this to do with most of us who are lucky enough to be blessed with good health and supportive environments? It is simple, a question of ATTITUDE. There are people who are always looking at the bright side of any situation, whose positive attitude can give them strength and inspire others to succeed. Sadly, there are also many, like Eoyore, who see any small obstacle as a personal insult and an excuse for failure. I am sorry to say that the England that I left in the mid 1980s had much of that attitude; it was “can’t do society”. Enthusiasm was suspect and easily quashed. In my hospital work I had to fight daily to maintain the services I had struggled to develop, with no hope of further progress. The contrast when I arrived at Duke University in USA was amazing. The “can-do” attitude was refreshing, and so foreign as to be a little scary. My boss said, “welcome Peter, now what do you want (salary, facilities, equipment, staff)”? No one had ever asked me that before, and I probably underbid as a result. But the best was yet to come. I had the great fortune to meet and then work with a nurse who had (and has) the most positive attitude that I can imagine. Her initials are MS, and members of SGNA will know exactly who I mean. That attitude pulled us through many sticky situations as the Unit developed.

We should draw an important distinction between a positive attitude and blind optimism. There are people who are always cheerful, but who fail to see, or intentionally ignore, the obstacles that need to be overcome. Getting that balance is the essence of leadership, and I see it in your current President.

Great challenges can produce great responses, as in the examples given earlier. But I think the issue for most of us is how to generate and channel that positive energy without having such big hurdles to face. How do we strive to make things even better when they are going reasonably well?  I guess we all need to try harder, and AIM HIGHER.