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The MacGyver Principle

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

Some of the best things materialised in the eighties. One of my favourite TV series was Cosmos, with the amazing Carl Sagan; and another was called MacGyver, in which Richard Dean Anderson played Angus MacGyver, a secret agent. Both seemed capable of doing the impossible with the improbable (what I like to call, "The MacGyver Principle").

Carl Sagan was the most wonderful presenter (personally, I think he outranked Sir David Attenborough by light years). It was Carl Sagan who first introduced me to science, as a personal journey through space, time, imagination, reality ... he really was a very special person with a gift for story-telling, so that science was never dull but, instead, liberating!

I still miss his programs, to this day, and no-one has ever come close. I like Neil deGrasse Tyson, in the remake (Cosmos, A SpaceTime Odyssey), but he still doesn't hold a candle to Carl Sagan. Prof Sagan had a way of putting together elements of history, anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, science fiction and religion, and synthesising all into coherent stories that made sense to my teenage brain. I was enthralled with each episode, and would not consider missing one (in those days before on-demand, streaming, and even "video-recording")!!

This ability to synthesise disparate topics and contexts still inspires me, both personally and professionally (it's an important skill in writing, teaching and workshop facilitation). The first episode of Cosmos is now available on YouTube and is presented by the mesmerising Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the series with Carl and Steven Sotor. Ann's life is inspiring for all, especially those whose passion in education is derailed by ridicule from teachers or other students: despite her early experience of classroom ridicule over a question concerning pi, she self-educated to become a recognised author, producer, and science communicator. To have been creative director on NASA's Voyager Interstellar Message Project is a dream to which little scientists like me can only aspire. She did the impossible with the improbable! And she continues to this day, to inspire and lead. While Carl Sagan mesmerised me with his delivery, it was Ann Druyan's words that took me to galaxies far, far away, and was probably my first experience of meditation. Listening to Carl Sagan present Cosmos was a truly transcendent experience.

Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver, Season 1 Promo
Richard Dean Anderson as MacGyver, Season 1 Promo

Then, there was MacGyver. He was a fictional character working for a fictional agency, looking good despite his mullet, and he somehow would get out of life-and-death situations by using whatever was to hand, his military experience, and his physics education. No guns, if he could help it; just good old-fashioned ingenuity. He seemed to make it all look easy, and believable. The difference was, he was complete fiction, as were all his escapes, and Cosmos was based on actual science.

I still like the idea of calling "Doing the impossible with the improbable", The MacGyver Principle, because it makes it a little closer to home. Sure, I'm no secret agent working to save the world, but I'm human, and I'm doing what I can with what I have, where I am, and doing it now. It could also be called the Roosevelt Principle, because Theodore Roosevelt was attributed with the quote, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are" , or the Carver Principle, because George Washington Carver said, "Do what you can, with what you have and do it now!" I like Carver's version a little better than Roosevelt's because it feels more active.

I think we can all relate to MacGyver, because we get ourselves into situations sometimes when we need to think on our feet. We need to "be flexible and informed, while being prepared and agile"*. This could be in a physical sense, but it is very much a mental state. Those of us who like things to be the same, to have routine, to have order and control, are the people for whom this mental agility is scary stuff. When faced with those situations calling for mental agility, those people can't cope, and fall to pieces.

But those of us who thrive with novelty, and look for opportunities to learn and master new ideas and techniques, well, we're always going to love life.

The reason? We don't let little things bother us. We know that we have something in our psychological toolkit that will work, whether it be our own mindset or our ability to enlist help from others when we need it. And that sets us up for when there are big challenges - we know how to cope, and we seek help.

If you know me, or have read my previous articles or my books, then you know I like to mention my parents occasionally. You see, I believe we have psychological heritage, and we can call on that psychological heritage any time we need it. Take my parents as an example. They grew up during The Great Depression, when things were scarce and times were incredibly hard. My father stopped school in Year 10 to help his parents and siblings make do with what they had. Men would catch the train to Mayfield and then walk to Stewart and Lloyds for work, and (for a fee) my father would park their bikes while they went to work. Then the men would collect their bikes after work, catch the train, and ride for miles to get to their own homes.

Dad once told me that he "had the pick of them, and would ride up to Tomago to go swimming with Fogger and the rest of the gang". Fogger (Foster Bignall) was an older boy, with whom Dad remained friends until their deaths. I've mentioned my grandparents and great-grandparents previously too, and the reason I mention them all, is that they used their ingenuity, their resilience, their psychological resources, to survive hard times and to thrive. So many hard times, and so much psychological heritage for me, on to which to draw. I love that many were people who started their own businesses (like me), or became leaders of their communities - it's that kind of psychological heritage that gives me hope, because these were people who were confident in themselves and had hope for the future.

I've been awe-inspired by people celebrated during NAIDOC Week, this July. I absolutely loved it! So much to inspire all of us. So many uplifting stories of people transcending the most horrible experiences, to create a legacy for all. Click on the poster below for more info ... and here for an explanation of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

You can see the mighty Uluru in the foreground of the NAIDOC Week 2019 Poster, and it's important to note that this is a sacred site. When I go overseas and enter a cathedral or temple, I cover my head and ask for advice on how to conduct myself; and then I obey, out of respect. This is the easiest thing in the world to do. It saddens me that people are making a mess on and around Uluru, as they anticipate it's closure to climbers in October. This is so disrespectful.

Let's just stop climbing Uluru. Let's look up and admire it's majesty. Let's sit quietly and feel it's power. Let's touch the earth beneath us with reverence, and learn from those who care for this special place. And then, let us take everything home with us, and share this mystical gift with gratefulness.

Avenue of trees along the Vienne River, France
Avenue of trees along the River Vienne, France

As always, thank you for coming along on my little adventure, and my reminiscence! A colleague long ago, once said, "The mind, the mind is the traveller". And so it is.

Please feel free to contact me, I'd love to hear from you!

* I nearly forgot - the expression, to be "flexible and informed, while being prepared and agile" is something I picked up from Monte Farber and Amy Zerner


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