Most of us experience ups and downs, but most of us realize that the downs are temporary. Somewhere along the way, we learned that if we picked ourselves back up, dusted ourselves off and tried again, possibly in a different way, then the outcome would be different. It might have been a parent, a teacher, a neighbor, older sibling or grandparent, but at some point during our formative years, someone taught us that our positive actions could and often would lead to a positive outcome.
What would happen if instead of having someone to pick you up, you were ignored or even worse, had someone near you that you loved and respected push you down? According to Dr. Martin Seligman, author of, "Learned Optimism, How to Change Your Mind and Your Life," when efforts seem to not make a difference, eventually, people become worn down; they give up and do nothing.
They have learned helplessness. This happens not only to youth but also to adults. Just imagine if you lived in an environment where nothing you did appeared to make a difference -- it would be easy to just stop trying.
Sean Wilson, a prisoner at Ironwood State Prison in California, gave a TEDx talk in 2014 that provided an example of how a person can change their life by changing their thought process. While serving his sentenced 10 years in prison for 12 counts of aggravated assault, Wilson earned his college degree and even became valedictorian.
Wilson talked about not fitting in, growing up and living in an environment that left him "searching for something to redeem (himself) from feeling alone and inadequate in (his) circle of life." He had wanted to be a marine biologist when he was small, he told the audience, and while he "never stopped dreaming, they just turned into bad ones."
Thinking back on what led him to commit armed robbery at age 16, Wilson reflected: "But how -- how did I get to a point of taking a gun and robbing you? It takes a person with no sense of self-value not to see how low this is, and it was fear that robbed me of mine and ultimately my future."
Youth with no sense of self-value, no hope in changing their future through their actions. A recipe for disaster.
His foray into college while in prison provided him with experiences that allowed him "to break (his) old habits of thinking. To survive those short moments just before giving up. To fight back for (his) place in life, gaining courage and liberty in the process."
What did earning his college degree do for Wilson?
"I realize I have value now, I always have, from doing something that I value that matters in our society." While the opportunity to earn a college degree was provided to Wilson, it was his hard work and effort that lead to him earn his degree and become valedictorian. He had people around him to encourage him and provide the encouragement needed or him to keep working toward his goal, even during the moments that were overwhelming.
Wilson's experience has led him to challenge us to encourage others but to also expect them to provide effort.
"My call to action is for parents and role models to take interest and support our kids in pursuing their dreams and passion. By encouraging them through their fears and self-doubts, where their minds are like short little storms that pick at things and twist them really quick. Be there to balance them out and calm and clear those false starts that aren't real, allowing them to see and reach their full potential.
"Encouragement from someone that you love and respect is moving and trumps fear every time."
To take his lesson and apply it to a broader vista, we must ask not only how can we, as a nation, provide support and programs for youth, but also, what process should we be using to help them understand that they are not helpless. It's not just about access and money. Their actions can positively affect their future. How do we encourage their efforts that will the lead to positive results?
As a country, we need to challenge ourselves to do more than pass programs and allocate money -- we have to figure out how to reach out to others with love and respect, and encourage them to reach their full potential by expending effort.