My mentor, Larry, was an angry man. He could drive five miles past his usual turn on the freeway because he was in the grip of a passion. One day he explained that something had reminded him of something idiotic said to him two years before. He once shouted at me for almost twenty minutes in a full diner, because of a casual remark. So when any sweetness came forth from this rock it was deeply appreciated.

Imagine a man beset by a storm of bees. That was my life for years. Larry was the least of my problems — he was on my side. I was used to his tirades. He would return a manuscript with the comment ‘don’t be so stupid!’ pencilled into the margin. So it was a surprise to receive from him one day a single sheet of paper with the word Courage written upon it. I kept it by my keyboard for years. It was a totem that helped to steer me through those dreadful years.

Courage: the word is from the Latin cor meaning heart. It is like hearten, which we use more readily as dishearten these days. Hearten: give heart to. Beneath the words are layers of meaning. The heart is the organ of emotion, according to that ancient system which still informs the language in which our thoughts swim. From the heart come love and endurance.

We encourage people — support their aspirations. In the complex interweavings of psychobabble simple ideas are easily forgotten. The eminent musician Mel Collins spoke of the disillusionment he felt when Robert Fripp rejected one of his pieces for King Crimson. He felt it still decades later, and implied that his career as a writer had been stunted by this rejection. Fripp said that he simply meant that the piece was not appropriate for Crimson. Beware the magical power of words.

In one of a splendid pair of documentaries, In Search of Genius, pundit Tony Buzan argued — against the beliefs of specialists — that he could take the worst performers from a school and turn one of them into a genius. While he failed in this vague task, he showed that by encouragement it was possible to greatly improve the behaviour and achievement of all of the pupils. Take away the yelling and deprecation of our school teachers and foster the tender heart, and miracles may appear. The children were encouraged to explain their own aspirations and congratulated for doing so.

Feeling unappreciated throughout my life (ahhh!), it has been easy for me to offer encouragement to others. Whenever I am pleased or impressed, I usually make a point of saying so, and fortunately for me, I derive great enjoyment from human talents. It took me a long time to realize that the suspicion with which compliments are often met comes from a recognition that flattery is the first tool of the confidence trickster. I take the risk of being seen in that way.

We are driven in childhood by praise and criticism. One of my friends chose to excel because a teacher told her she never would, but it is more often the case that a positive remark is remembered and provides hope, strength, courage in the years to come. Good marriages, it has been said, feature a ratio of five positive comments to each criticism. We are simple creatures really. So, remember this, and help your friends by remarking their positive qualities.

August 2004