Thinking back positively

Professor Hugh Koch discusses the psychology of writing his memoirs.

Everyone has a book in them… a story worth telling. 

In 1973, I stood halfway up Hyde Street, one of San Francisco’s iconic streets. I looked down at Fisherman’s Wharf and thought ‘I’m 5000 miles from home, I’ve hitched across the USA, I need to hitch back to New York… and I can do it’. On that same trip I had bought a poster for my parents of two seagulls flying free and a byline that said ‘they can because they think they can’. It was a prescient purchase – encouraged by family members on reaching ‘three score years and ten’ to lay down personal and professional memories, I soon identified the theme of ‘cognitive empowerment’ – the path from positive thinking to opportunity and achievement. 

The result, They Can Because They Think They Can: A Psychologist’s Memoir, was published in June 2021.

It reflects on the journey that my qualifications afforded me: psychologist Cary Cooper, who provided the foreword, suggested that I had been able to ‘look for circumstances I wanted, and if unable to find them, I made them’. I want to encourage others to make the circumstances for their memoirs. 

Beginnings

My father, born and living in Vienna, decided in 1938 to emigrate to London due to the economic catastrophe and rising political extremism in Austria following the ‘Anschluss’ (annexation). He used his intellect, social skills and considerable drive to establish himself and our family just outside London. He and my mother encouraged my sister and I to be self-sufficient and financially robust. I recall a conversation with him by the fireside when I was 19, wondering whether to study psychology – he said, ‘just make sure you develop skills you can market’. I took that suggestion to heart.

Through my career in Psychology and expert witness work I have written several books covering topics such as therapy, community psychology, general management, quality management and civil litigation. Now, prompted by my daughter Emily to write about my earlier life before it was forgotten or too late, I set out to revisit the best times, my parents’ unconditional life, to learn more about myself, unwrapping the layers of my life from a professional point of view. 

I had been gathering ideas, letters, photographs, articles that have acted as both a comfort blanket and stimulus for free association from day to day and event to event. Much of the thinking and writing was done at home with calming music, like Satie’s ‘Gymnopedies’ or chilled late-night jazz, and an occasional glass of dry white wine to hand. As Coleen McCann has said about writing, ‘it is a work of imagination, you won’t die trying; at least not yet!’.

Learning

The theme of this memoir is one of ‘cognitive empowerment’ in which positive thinking can interact and lead to feelings of ability, greater self-esteem and further achievement. What have I learned along that path?

Graduating from Bristol University in 1973, I embarked on a varied and exciting career with five diverse roles as a Clinical Psychologist (therapist) NHS Senior General Manager, Management Consultant (TQM), Expert Witness, and, latterly, an academic/clinical professor in Law and Psychology and mentor to other psychologists. Each role has afforded me a view of very different contexts which psychology can be applied to. I approached each with a ‘can do’ attitude which helped me in the good times and the less good.

My wish to be liked and loved has made socialising and getting the most out of relationships a crucial motivation to be positive, generous and avoid or resolve conflict when possible. Social communication has been in many different contexts – varying from one-to-one therapy to large group situations. My move away from therapy was motivated by experiences in an NHS management group in Colchester when the Health Minister of the time introduced the decision-making thrust that was General Management. My interest and aptitude in communication skills plus a ‘bias for action’ (adopting one of my parents’ traits) resulted in a successful foray into managing a well-funded community care programme in Somerset.

Slippery slopes

Don’t get me wrong, writing has forced me to revisit slippery slopes too. A further step up the NHS management ladder to manage five hospitals in Cheltenham and Cirencester was an unhappy period: I was used to being successful, effective and valued professionally, and memories of being confronted in Health Authority meetings with my inadequate information and poor hospital performance don’t exactly fit my narrative of achievement and optimism. I had been promoted beyond my competence, and after 12-18 months I elected to leave. 

I had to look at other painful parts of my life too: my parents’ conflictual relationships; sitting on my mother’s bed crying; self-esteem difficulties at school and university; negative talk at home; university reluctance to let me change courses; poor academic performance; lack of skill in managing acute medical services; patients burning my office; investigating a cluster of suicides of patients in my care; dealing with unsympathetic politicians and media.

Yet looking back, I can see how negative events can still have positive connotations. And simply the process of projecting your inner world onto the blank page is not dissimilar to undergoing therapy, giving the writer a chance to reflect. Our past haunts us, especially the difficult or conflictual events. You need to allow yourself the freedom to feel vulnerable and be open to your feelings, both happy, sad and bad. It takes quite a lot of courage to write about one’s life experiences – reluctance may be expressed as a practical ‘how do I start’ but is often, deeper down, a fear of disclosure (to oneself and others). This is a shame as this process is amazing and the writer is in control of what gets published. 

The bumps in my own road led me to forge a career as a management consultant, followed by establishing a business in medico-legal expert witness work which was not only intellectually and professionally extremely rewarding but also saw me implement my father’s advice to ‘have skills which can be marketed’. Writing the memoir reminded me of the many times and events where I had adapted a positive perspective which then translated into achievement and success. It has also made me much more aware of my roots, how my parents’ endeavours laid the foundations for a secure childhood, economically, socially and to some extent, emotionally. While writing, I was aware of how positive I became about many aspects of past relationships – this resulted in a generally positive outcome to the whole project of writing my memoir. Memoir writing helps to create a more profound sense of wellbeing and peace of mind. 

Tips 

I hope I have encouraged some of you to put pen to paper. I have found my memoir experience gratifying and empowering, both cognitively and socially – I hope yours is too, and here are some practical tips to get you started: 

  • Choose a theme with/without some pivotal moments or events in your life.
  • Start gathering reminiscences by either brainstorming (non-chronological) or in an ordered way (e.g. chronological; location-based).
  • List people, events and ‘show don’t tell’ conversations – try and identity your feelings. Recreate dialogue as clearly as you can. Put the reader in the ‘room’.
  • Write in an effective way for you (structural; time managed; flitting in and out).
  • Be truthful and don’t avoid negative or ambiguous events… they can often carry the main ‘lessons’.
  • Be kind and positive to yourself, and keep in a positive mood/space when writing. 

There’s one postscript… Samuel Goldwyn once said, ‘I don’t think anyone should write their autobiography or memoir until after they’re dead’. The inevitable incompleteness of a memoir is, as Ian McKellen once said, ‘the final chapter is missing’. Like them, I am left intrigued about the ‘final chapter’ and what it may entail. This may well be the subject of the next project…

Professor Koch is interviewed by Dr Liz Boyd at thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/they-can-because-they-think-they-can-value-positive-thinking

To buy the book, visit linktr.ee/hughkochmemoir or email [email protected] associates.co.uk

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