News Opinion

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Our obsession with our Irishness holds us back

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

NO LAUGHING MATTER: Shem Caulfield, who owns the boat from which Joan Burton fell last Thursday, has to deal with flooding in his house situated on the Quays in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
NO LAUGHING MATTER: Shem Caulfield, who owns the boat from which Joan Burton fell last Thursday, has to deal with flooding in his house situated on the Quays in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

I asked a friend of mine who was home from Australia for Christmas what struck him most on this occasion. And he said it was optimism, a general air of it, on people's faces, in their demeanour. Optimism is not something he would have picked up a year ago on his last visit. It can be hard for us to remember how unsure we felt just one short year ago, how much our mindset has changed since then.

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 You could argue that it is easy to be positive now, going into 2016, when the news and the omens are good. But that hardly demonstrates real resilience. And resilience is the thing right now isn't it? Resilience, along with adaptability, is what we want to teach our kids to survive in the fast-changing work environment of the future. And resilience, adaptability and bouncebackability is what we aspire to for ourselves and indeed for the nation. Those are the qualities that we are told will make all the difference in the future.

It's hard to say how mentally resilient we were over the course of the recession. At times we tended to believe that things would never come back, that this was how it would always be, that we had blown it because of innate traits within ourselves that caused some of us to gorge on debt and property. And those of us who hadn't were going to pay for the ones who did. And it became common to say that our children, and our children's children, would have to keep paying for these socialised debts of private individuals and companies. We saw no bounce-back. And even as the bounce-back happens, we find it hard to trust it or to believe it.

On Friday, we heard that the report of the Banking Inquiry was finally done, and most of us just shrugged our shoulders. What difference would it make? The Irish will never change, was the attitude. We have always let ourselves be conned by elites and we keep electing the same types to govern us. Look at Enda now, buying the election just like Bertie used to do. It has become a fatalistic joke to say that when it comes to bubbles and booms and busts, we would and will do it all again, that we have learnt nothing. Indeed some argue that we are doing it already.

This kind of fatalism, this narrow definition of who we inescapably are, has become a huge part of the culture. It manifests itself in many seemingly harmless ways, like the obsession with books and websites and hashtags about "You know you're Irish when . . ." and things that are uniquely Irish, and things that could only happen in Ireland. This vogue for these unique things about the Irish can seem like harmless fun, but in a way it continues to underscore that we have these national traits that make us interesting characters but that invariably lead to underachievement and sometimes disaster. We have a good laugh about it, while still accepting it.

I got a bit of a wake-up call on Friday when I spoke on the radio to Shem Caulfield, the man whose boat Joan Burton fell out of in Thomastown last Thursday. The pictures had been all over the place and everyone was getting a good laugh out of it, and I guess I was expecting to have a light-hearted chat with Shem about the incident. But after dismissing the incident quickly, he went on to discuss the heart of the matter, the psychological devastation wreaked on people by floods, and how it changed the nature of their confidence in their homes and their businesses, how it destroyed their sense of security. And he had hard questions to ask about the multifaceted nature of this problem and why there was no joined-up thinking about it.

And I felt a bit ashamed for getting sucked into one of those bouts of Irish eejitry, about how this was all great crack and a bit of light relief, and so typically Irish, when in fact the real issue here was why we aren't acting like grown-ups about flooding and why are we letting it happen to these people again and again?

It's not enough to shrug and think, "Sure that's just the way things are in this country, and that's the way it's always been, but at least we can have a laugh about it". And this mindset is at the heart of whether we will show real resilience or not in the next few years.

Stanford Professor Carol Dwerk has done some interesting work on what she calls the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. Google her ten-minute Ted talk on it for a good primer. The work was done on children, so it is perhaps no surprise that you could apply it to us Irish as a people.

The fixed mindset is one that attributes success or failure to innate things in a person, i.e. sure isn't that the way it always is with the Irish. So a child with a fixed mindset believes that their ability to do a challenging task, or not, is down to innate ability. If a child with a fixed mindset cannot do something straight away, they will decide they can't do it and they will give up and they will be tempted to cheat the next time or not to accept challenging tasks again. That child believes they can't do something because they are not intelligent enough or good enough at maths or sporty enough or whatever. The child with a growth mindset welcomes a challenging task, they revel in trying to achieve it and when they don't achieve it they will try and learn from it. The child with the growth mindset believes that abilities can be developed. That child does not believe it is limited by talent or intelligence. And that child will show more perseverance and resilience in life. That child doesn't think "I can't do that", they think, "I can't do that . . . yet".

So the fixed mindset catastrophises when faced with a challenge. They believe when they win that this is because they are innately a winner. But the problem comes when they lose. Because what does that make them?

The way to develop a growth mindset in a child is not to offer praise for results but to offer praise for effort, for strategies employed, for the process used. The child may not always achieve the desired result - yet - but they won't feel like a failure when they don't.

Dwerk says that employers are already telling her that there are a generation of workers now who can't get through the day without constant validation because they have a fixed mindset and they feel their success or failure at any task is a direct reflection on them as a winner or loser. This is not the resilience we need for the future.

It all sounds a bit familiar doesn't it? In Ireland we constantly need to be told what a great people we are, how the eyes of the world are upon us, how everybody loves the Irish, how we are in some way special, that there are innate qualities in us that are unique. And when we win, boy do we feel like winners. The trouble is the flipside. When we fail, we decide this to is a reflection on who we are. We catastrophise and decide that it is our innate loserdom that has made us lose. So the bust was not a combination of global factors with specific decisions made in this country. No, we have decided it was a unique madness in the Irish. It was a personal reflection on us and the kind of people we keep electing.

This fixed mindset, that Paddy is who he is and we can't change but sure we're gas, is not going to provide us with the resilience we need for the times ahead. There will be more challenges ahead, and we can't crumble and blame our unique Irishness every time things become difficult. Maybe it's time for us to grow up and decide we can change, we can learn to do things differently, we can learn from things like the Banking Inquiry. We don't have to keep making the same mistakes over and over. It's not in our DNA. And the boom-bust cycle does not have to be accompanied by a cycle of elation and self-loathing.

As we celebrate 100 years since 1916, perhaps we should stop obsessing about the unique identity we cling to and perhaps we should let the mistakes of the past go and realise we can change, we can grow and we are not prisoners of some dysfunctional Irish mindset.

Sunday Independent

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