Looking on the bright side into 2013

Here’s a New Year resolution for 2013: look on the bright side every now and then (though as a realist, not Pollyanna). There is a bit to see there.

The New Zealand habit is to look on the gloomy side and to see something small, smug and stifling. Half a million ex-New Zealanders have shaken that habit for life in Australia.

Yet realistic bright-side lookers can do things here faster and more freely than in most other places. That’s why there are many entrepreneurs here, a few of them world leaders.

An entrepreneur is a self-starter who thinks up something new or different or enterprising, then does it.

Mostly we think of entrepreneurs in a business context and, through our gloom, focus on those who get it wrong or go wrong (finance companies, leaky home builders, the CTV building designer, a mine owner). If we slipped over to the bright side we would focus more on those who get it right: they do well for themselves and for all of us.

Stay on that bright side. There are entrepreneurs in all sorts of places and occupations, even inside the supposedly stodgy public service.

Three of my best hours of 2012 were spent with a public service entrepreneur in a poor east Auckland suburb, Point England: decile 1, state houses.

Teachers usually flee the schools in such areas. They queue for Point England.

If you visit that school you will come across a man dressed much like a caretaker. He is Russell Burt, the principal. Better dressed wife Dorothy works with him. The Burts are my 2012 entrepreneurs of the year.

Another entrepreneur, Pat Snedden, financed the Burts’ venture by siphoning money from intrigued business chief executives. That has equipped all the kids with netbooks which their parents buy in weekly instalments. They are thereby better connected to learning. Truancy has plummeted. Achievement standards are close to the national average.

My favourite takeaway, among many from my three hours, was to be told the rugby league coach was complaining some of his team were spending lunchtime in the library with books instead of on the paddock.

These are Pasifika and Maori kids. Left to the system as it has been, a large percentage would not learn enough to earn enough. The Prime Minister wants that fixed and told Hekia Parata to fix it (though she has proved more adept at getting into fixes).

The Burts are fixing it at the front end of the school assembly line. The chief executives’ bottom line from the venture — productive workers — is up to 40 quarterly reports away. Their short-term dividend is not for their profit-and-loss account: kids doing better, maybe a neighbourhood too.

The Burts and Snedden focus on what can be done, not what can’t be done. That’s the bright side.

The can’t-be-done crowd treats issues as problems. Public service policy people and politicians think this way because they then feel needed to fix them. Treating issues as options and opportunities — the can-be-done line — invites aspiration and energy.

Here’s a parallel: pitying victims risks locking them in victimhood; backing them as survivors makes more of their futures.

The victim mentality has wormed into our thinking about our country and prospects. We see what’s wrong or missing more than what’s on offer.

In that sense we are a chip off the old block: as a columnist recently put it, Britain once had delusions of grandeur but now has delusions of weakness.

New Zealand is small. Even if we tripled the population as Federated Farmers wants, we would still be a small market. Australia with 23 million is small in all but its self-regard.

But we have some big pluses.

We have abundant water, food-catching and growing capacity and energy in a world short of water and food and unevenly endowed with energy. We have lots of space. We are distant from mayhem. (Boat people don’t bother us.)

We have very low corruption, one the most stable democracies, generally good institutions and the rule of law. We have a voice in world affairs much louder than our size warrants. We have by world standards a good education system.

We are, many of us, entrepreneurs in the broad sense: inventive (think Weta Digital, the top firm in the world for digital film imaging) and creative (Gareth Farr’s “Mad Little Machine” was my 2012 standout).

We are generally peaceable: we made the extraordinary journey from a monoculture to a bicultural society without mayhem.

We have a great brand, best said as fresh/safe/natural.

Of course, there are negatives, not least that we don’t have a “spike” city in which highly creative people congregate in numbers and drive innovation and economic and artistic success. Our elites scarper abroad. Our supply lines are long and tenuous. Our brand is fraying. We are often stiflingly small-minded.

But the positives far outweigh the negatives. To many foreigners New Zealand is highly desirable, stacked with opportunity and good living.

They see the bright side — and don’t need a New Year resolution to see it.