Never say you can’t until you prove you can’t

Our Guest Author is, once again, Gorgeous Dunny, with another of his fascinating “Memoirs of a Country Employment Counsellor”. Thank you, GD!

(Credit: Joseph A. Rosen, Guitar International)

Lessons in life can spring from the most improbable sources. The legendary guitarist Les Paul never forgot one he’d had as a small boy.

A road workman on a lunch break fascinated him by playing lively tunes on his harmonica. Suddenly the workman stopped and handed young Les the harmonica, saying, “Here, you have a go.”

Les shyly declined, mentioning he couldn’t play. The workman jumped up angrily and shouted, “Never say you can’t until you prove you can’t!” He handed him the harmonica again and said, “Now, Play!”

Young Les modestly complied, fumbling away making awkward sounds from the instrument. The workman, now more kindly, took the harmonica back from him and said, “All right, son. You’ve proved you can’t play at the moment. It don’t mean you can’t ever play. Always remember that, kid. Never say you can’t until you prove you can’t.”

Les did always remember, and applied it to everything he tackled in life. The harmonica was the first musical instrument that he mastered, but he was destined for much greater things as an innovator with the guitar.

As a teenager, I’d read this story in one of those Readers Digest features called something like, “My most unforgettable moments”. It stayed with me because Les Paul’s amazing guitar performances had made him an idol of mine. I started to include it in my own life because it sounded pretty good. How do we know we can’t, if we don’t prove we can’t?

In my tourism career, I found it a useful way of addressing problems. In Sydney during the late 60s, South Australian Tourist Bureau did very well out of interest in the semi-desert and desert areas of the Flinders Ranges and Central Australia. But one problem was that tourist services were virtually confined to the winter months from April to September. The climate could be quite severe in the summer months, and air-conditioning was not then commonplace.

(Aroona Dam, Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Photograph: Mike Langford )

Yet many people, because of their employment or business, could only travel in the summer months. I negotiated for some time with tour operators before one took the plunge with an Ayers Rock- Alice Springs tour ex Adelaide starting from Boxing Day. It required a little adaption such as air-conditioned vehicles and avoiding much travel through the middle of the day. But it could be done. The tour was oversubscribed, leading to another departure. That operator expanded the following season and other tour operators offered services after that success.

It was more daunting for the Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks and Simpson Desert areas. Even during the winter months, only four-wheel drive vehicles could be used and great care had to be exercised. One ‘regular’ couple that had grown to love desert areas had a long ambition to tour there, but could only travel during December-January. Again I lobbied various operators before one agreed to try it. My couple were among the first to book in what became a successful, in-demand tour.

(Credit: Malcur)

(Credit: Australian Geographic – Photograph: Jiri Lochman)

They could not contain their joy when they returned to tell me about it. He developed a shocking sun skin cancer on the forehead but felt that it was a small price for what was the trip of a lifetime. I tried to bring that attitude to my later career in employment counselling, never say you can’t, until you prove you can’t.

I received just such a challenge at Portland when Bev came to see me. She was seeking Labour Market Program (LMP) assistance to do a two-year travel course. I should mention that the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) could only approve LMP assistance for course durations of up to one year. Anything longer had to be recommended and approved by me. As it turned out, it was singularly appropriate that it went to me.

Bev had no problem meeting the eligibility requirements for assistance. She was in her late twenties and had a most unusual background. As a qualified chef, her employment future had seemed assured until an unusual accident at home in Melbourne. She fell off a stool while doing some repairs at home. From the subsequent head injuries she had a stroke. After rehabilitation, and parental support in her native town of Portland, she had made a partial recovery, but had a permanent paralysis of her right side – arm and leg. She got around with a walking stick and had learned other things such as writing with her left hand.

Being used to her own independence, Bev was determined to return to work. She could never return to cooking because of the heavy work shifting pots, plus the general agility now denied her with the right side paralysis. So she looked at retraining for work as a travel consultant where her disability would not be a major problem.

This was the dilemma for me. She could have remained on disability pension for the rest of her life, but she wanted to work and deserved to be encouraged. Yet coming from the travel industry myself, I knew immediately that it was unsuited to her. She was an introvert personality. She had no clerical/administrative background.

Without exceptional motivation, it was hard to see how she could adapt. Part of my recommendation was based around the prospects of her getting employment after completing the course. I just couldn’t see it happening in Bev’s case.

On the other hand, I felt that whatever I did, I should not say to her that she can’t do it. She ought to be encouraged, but the challenge was to get her going in a vocational direction that would be beneficial. Instead, I asked her why she had decided to do a travel training course. Her answer was startling and enlightening. She had been determined to work again as she recovered. Whatever she tried to do, she’d always been told it was not possible. Finally, she’d received a lot of encouragement from a social worker. She suggested the Travel course to Bev.

The choice was inappropriate in my view. But it was understandable that, having been given no encouragement to that point, she should snatch at that option. I had formed quite different ideas based on my experience in rehabilitation. I believed that it was easier to make the transition to a new career if you could draw on the knowledge and experience of your existing trade or occupation.

For example, I’d had considerable success with former building industry tradespeople (plumbing, bricklaying, carpentry, painting) by placing them in hardware store retail sales. Their particular knowledge was a major sales asset for the hardware stores’ primary client group of home handymen/renovators. Often the essential need of these customers was the knowledge/advice of how to address a problem or an emergency. The sales of recommended products followed from that advice.

I’d encouraged other injured tradespeople into getting TAFE training qualifications so that they could teach or assess/test apprentices. These methods lessened the amount of learning needed to enter a new occupation, while drawing on areas of knowledge in which they were competent. My idea with Bev was that such a pathway would make it a little easier to achieve her goal of useful employment.

The trick was how to bring her around to this idea without discouraging her. What I had in mind was something like an Advanced Certificate in Hospitality, which was essentially about kitchen management in a hotel or restaurant. It took in such things as planning menus and supplies, arranging services, training apprentices and kitchen-hands plus specialty things such as nutrition, diet and hygiene. It would still require her to develop additional skills, but in the context of advancing on her existing knowledge and skills.

South West TAFE at Warrnambool had a School of Hospitality and Tourism, which was ideal for what I had in mind. It had options of courses in travel/tourism and hospitality/cookery. I said that, for a start, I’d prefer that she do a course locally (the one she’d originally nominated was in Melbourne) so that she still had parental/family support. She agreed with the sense of that, and I said I’d set up an interview with the Head of that school.

(Credit: Lyons)

I rang him to discuss setting up an interview with Bev. I explained the background and where I was hoping to take it, bearing in mind that I did not want to discourage her. He proved remarkably sympathetic, having a brother with a major disability. He said that he’d show her right through the department and what each course did and led to. He was confident it would be enough information for her to decide for herself and he looked forward to her becoming a student there. I contacted Bev and arranged her transport to Warrnambool for the interview.

A few weeks later, she saw me again about getting training assistance to do the Advanced Certificate in Hospitality. It was a two-year course, just as the travel one was. I happily arranged the recommendation/approval for this course, including the daily commuting bus transport from Portland. I left it to my new friend at TAFE to arrange whatever modifications might have been needed to allow Bev to cope physically.

I still feigned innocence on the whole thing, and I asked her what had changed her mind about her choice of course.
She replied, “Oh, I realized after I went over there that a travel certificate was a stupid choice and that this one made a lot more sense.”

Although I had manipulated the situation a little, I had left the ultimate decision up to her. I was glad she’d reached that conclusion.

I saw her at the end of the year at Warrnambool, when there had to be a renewal of her training assistance program for the second year. She had passed the first year requirements comfortably, and was satisfied with the course she’d selected. The only change was that she’d decided to relocate to Warrnambool for the second year. The daily travel (one hour each way) had been a bit tiring with her disability.

She gained her qualification. I next saw her was a year or two later at Hamilton. I was visiting the Wool Bales, which was a tourism project at Hamilton organized by Yooralla to employ people with severe disabilities. Bev had been recruited (in the ‘open market’) to supervise and train people with disabilities to prepare meals and food for visiting tourists. She seemed very comfortably in her element, training and supervising disability trainees in this work. Visitors to the Wool Bales greatly valued the quality of the food output. The trainees adored Bev as she hobbled about the kitchen barking out instructions.

(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I felt a sense of satisfaction not just at the end result but also that I’d had contact with her at all CES offices in this region that I served, starting at Portland, then Warrnambool and finally Hamilton.

It seemed to reinforce to me that where at all possible, you should not close off options to a person seeking to enter or re-enter the workforce. In many cases what they want to do may be a pointless dream, but it should not be up to us to deny them that hope. Rather, by questioning, logical inferences and examples we should encourage people to reach their most achievable goal.

With Bev, I could have justified rejecting her application for training assistance on the grounds that firstly she may not be capable of completing the travel course, and secondly that completion alone would not lead to employment. But of what benefit to her in her efforts to find work? Yet if I had merely approved it on the basis of ‘doing something’ it could have led to similar disappointment. I needed to find a way of not refusing her, but opening up other possibilities. Then she could more easily commit to her own best interests.

My political hero was Don Dunstan, who for a while was also my boss when SA Tourism became part of the Premiers Department. Although he did not consciously adopt an attitude identical to Les Paul’s workman, it was similar but just expressed differently.

(Credit: Radio Adelaide)

When faced with urgently needed reforms, whether from decriminalizing homosexuality to imposing a deposit on beverage containers, Dunstan would always ask the question, “Well, why not?”

If he couldn’t give a rational answer to that, then he’d do something about it. The political difficulty was not an issue. Should it be, he would work on bringing opponents around to it. What mattered was whether it was right or needed to be done. It does require political courage. Other states have buckled at drink container reform just as soon as the selfish beverage lobby turned up the heat on them. But what is right is often more important than what is politically safe to do.

Who would have thought that the outlook of a road works laborer from 90 years ago could still resonate? It does seem a good approach to life.

Never Say You Can’t, Until You Prove You Can’t.

701 thoughts on “Never say you can’t until you prove you can’t

  1. I’ve got a ‘dead’ washing machine in the garage.

    Really tempted to paint ‘Talc/Ziggy Node’ on it and put it on the footpath.

  2. Conroy has been reading Ziggy the Riot Act on answering questions concerning the expenditure of public money.

  3. I’m starting to think that this government thinks things like this are actually documentaries (if someone would kindly do the wuffle dust please?)

  4. Well, part of Comet ISON made it around the Sun; my guess from the SOHO images is it has shattered like Comet Lovejoy. How it slipped past the SDO cameras is a mystery/disappointment… Exciting though.

  5. Jaegar,

    Well, part of Comet ISON made it around the Sun

    I was looking forward to a bit of a show but not much to see.

  6. “German scientists have discovered that crows’ brains work in very similar ways to those of primates, even though they are built differently.”

    Ever notice how crows dining on road-kill always fly away from cars? They don’t panic and fly into them.

    Then again, maybe I’ve only noticed the crows who survived.

  7. I hereby reproduce two of my my graphics from a few posts ago. Nice to see I can get something right…


    The “Reality Express” seems indeed to have met the “All-Stations To Sloganville”.

  8. Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky – how to pretend you’ve blocked a sale when you really haven’t. Graincorp share prices dropped substantially after Hockey’s announcment this morning. Was it all a plot to allow Graincorp to buy in at a much cheaper price? What does Wazza Truzzzz think about this?

    Hockey says by the way that he is still inclined to let Archer Daniels buy more shares in GrainCorp, to boost its stake from just under 20 per cent to just under 25 per cent.

    If it does so, it will be buying GrainCorp shares that have fallen in the wake of the Treasurer’s decision: will in effect be moving to a position of greater influence at GrainCorp without paying the control premium it was offering in the bid that has been blocked.

  9. After this morning Ziggy may be singing a bit of Ziggy.

    It ain’t easy, it ain’t easy
    It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down

  10. leonetwo,
    This has not long been posted at the AFR

    The alarm bells about the Abbott government are becoming deafening. And they are ringing around the world. What started as a rumble in Jakarta is now echoing through the capitals of every nation which has any dealings with Australia.
    And it’s not hard to imagine that the first question being asked about Abbott’s Australia is: “What on earth is going on?”

    What is happening is that a dramatic re-positioning of the way Australia relates to the rest of the world is under way.

  11. Workchoices and Carbon Tax rolled into one – maybe even with a sprinkling of L…A…W… Tax cuts thrown in.

    Not only are they making a very poor political decision, they are totally mucking up the sales job.

    Public schools to bear brunt of Pyne Gonski switch, say education ministers
    Federal minister looking to reduce funding share for public schools sector, say state ministers after angry meeting
    Daniel Hurst, Friday 29 November 2013 15.41 AEST

    The federal government is looking to reduce the share of funding it provides to the public school sector, according to angry state and territory education ministers who faced off with Christopher Pyne at a “very heated” meeting on Friday.

    Far from allaying concerns over the federal government’s decision to rewrite the David Gonski-inspired funding system next year, Friday’s face-to-face discussion has further stoked anger from both Liberal and Labor colleagues who are demanding assurances their states will not be disadvantaged for having signed deals with the former government.

  13. Jason
    You’re too quick for me, I was going to post that link. I have to say things are getting very scary from where I am viewing the events.

    David Marr and George Pell correspondence following the Quarterly Essay, The Prince
    By David Marr
    Wednesday, 27th November 2013

  15. Thanks for the AFR link Leonetwo

    Are the media are starting to turn against Abbott, please let it be so, could Turnbull be as bad, or would we get Hockey? FWIW it was correct to block the sale of Graincorp to Archer Daniel Midland, if only for their predatory pricing history in previous monopolistic situations

  16. I don’t think Turnbull will be back as leader. If the Liberals change – and how amazing is it that there’s talk of a leadership change just tweleve weeks after an election win – then it will be Hockey or Morrison.

  17. Abbott does Blot’s grubby little show that has an audience of about fifteen, including Gina, but is still refusing to appear on Q&A. Coward!

  18. leonetwo @3:29 PM
    If the choice is between Hockey & Morrison, then gods help us all! Which ever is the worse for this country is the one they would pick.
    Of course they could go for the female vote and select Ms Bishop (if Mr Murdoch told them to)

  19. Realist across at ABC net says that Pyne is redesigning school funding to bring it closer to what Gonski initially envisaged. That’s rubbish – isn’t it?

  20. Leonetwo,,

    If Abbott is forced out it will be because the MSM will find it too difficult to come up with spin to cover his blunders.
    Rupert will dictate who replaces him and I think Hockey and Morrison will be seen as too close to the disaster that is fast approaching. I’ll throw in a roughie. Mal Brough…

  21. leone

    I don’t think Turnbull will be back as leader.

    Me neither. He’s shown a serious lack of judgement and weakness on numerous occasions since he got dumped.

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