Presented with permission from Bob Adams, of Retirement Wave
People often ask me why I came to Panama, but I’d like to talk about something more general today, whether you choose Panama or some other country, something that’s drawn from my own experience. In 1967 when I was the ripe old age of 22, I set off as a Peace Corp volunteer to the Philippines. And for the 43 years since then, with the exception of two or three, I spent all of my professional life working all over the world-- 40 to 50 countries.
I did most of my work in nutrition and agriculture but all of it was in economic development. I worked for the United Nations for various agencies, I’ve worked for the US Foreign Aid Program, I’ve worked for a whole variety of non-profits and humanitarian agencies and I’ve worked for business firms. Most of my work was directly associated with economic development; in fact all of it was in one form or another. I would work in one country one year and then three years later I’d come back to do another job in the same country and I often found that a country had made no progress. Some of them had slid back. Some had made a little progress. Some made a fair amount of progress over time. And, like so many people with my background, especially since economic development is our professional field, we’d like to know why it is that in some countries, it seems to “take” and in other countries, it does not. What differentiates these two groups of nations?
My determination after all these years is really a simple one, and it’s fairly easy to test. If you talk to enough people in a country, and you ask them to tell you about their country, one group is going to talk with you about past glories that are no longer the case. Their wonderful history, or what they were like 500 years ago or 100 years ago or 50 years ago. Others will talk about some horrible war that was lost, a battle that was lost, or something terrible that happened in the past that they feel has made their lives miserable ever since. Some of these events are a thousand years ago. It’s astonishing to hear people talk about them. Others may 30 or 40 years ago. The critical issue is that these folks invariably, when they have a general topic to discuss regarding their country, focus on the past. Whether it was a beautiful, wonderful past or a horrible, terrific past, it was the past.
In another set of countries where I ask the same question, people will talk about how thing are today, what they’re doing now, but they will talk especially about the future; what they’re planning to do or what they’re looking forward to. Now if I ask them about their past, they’ll tell me about it, just as they will in Panama. In the other countries that don't progress, if I ask about their future, they’ll talk about it, even though they’re not very positive about it most of the time. But the critical thing is that, left to their own devices, one group chooses to talk about the past, while the other group chooses to focus on the future. Do I need to tell you which group in my experience over 43 years has made the real progress? Well, if you haven’t figured that out, it’s the group that’s focused on the future.
If you think you’ve got a future and your country’s got a future, you’re feeling positive and moving forward, you get things done, you’re willing to try new things, to look at other possibilities and alternatives, you're flexible and you work around things If you’re buried in the past and all you can do is sit there and complain about something that happened that you had no control over or that was five generations ago, or 500 generations ago, its not going to take you anywhere.
Panama is one of those countries that is very future oriented. They talk about what they’re doing today and what they will be doing. Panama is a country that had a dictator, it was invaded by a foreign power, it had a very difficult period after that, and it had to get itself reorganized. It did a very good job of it but it wasn’t easy; it was very difficult. In 2000, 2001, they had a very serious recession here. They’ve had all sorts of things they could talk about in their past. They’ve got plenty of them. But that’s not what they talk about. They talk about today and tomorrow. Very much focused on the future. I like that. I appreciate that, and I can see that in the government’s activities, whether its one administration or another one, one political party or another, it doesn’t make any difference. It’s their future-orientation that’s extremely important. And I find it among the population as a whole. This is radically different than in some countries that we will leave unnamed where it’s exactly the opposite.
Those other countries may be richer in some ways, but they’re not going forward; they’re moving backwards. Panama is moving forward, and I really, really appreciate that. I wouldn’t live here if that were not the case. I just have too much experience with the other kind of country. Oh, the other kind of country may have cheap land or cheap housing or really cheap cost of living, because there isn’t much to buy, anyway. But they’re not going anywhere. They’re not a happy country. There are social problems, there are political problems, and people are blaming somebody. They’re always looking for somebody to blame for their problems. The future-oriented countries are just much more involved in trying to figure out what to do next. They may argue a lot; this is a democratic country and there is constant debate going on about what to do next, but it’s all about that future. What’s the best way to move forward.
That’s one good reason to be in Panama. And it’s one thing to keep in mind wherever you go, whether it’s Panama or another country. You need to go to a country that is focused on the future. That country has a future, likely, a much better one than the country where you sit and people tell you how unfair life has been for them.
You know something? I’ve discovered that it works exactly the same for individuals. But that’s a little hint here too, for me, as well as for you, that countries are nothing more than collections of human beings, and so they exhibit human behavior. If you and I, regardless of where you live or what I do or choose to do or whatever, if you’re looking to the future and you’re building a future, and you’re interested in the future and that’s where your focus is, you’re much more likely to make some real progress and to be happy and to see improvements; a better life. If you’re going to be buried back in what it used to be like when you were younger, or had this job or that job or when there was some terrible or unfair thing that happened to you, it may be completely legitimate, but it’s not getting you anywhere. It’s over. It’s history.
So, each of us, just like each nation makes up his or her mind, are we focusing on the future, are we looking forward, or are we looking backward? As Marshall McLuhan, a commentator many years ago put it, are we marching backwards in the future? Are we looking at the future through a rear view mirror? Both of those comments he made sum it up very clearly, as far as I’m concerned. So keep your eyes focused ahead, and wherever you go to live, look for a place where the people you’re going to be living with are looking forward to a better life. And if they are, you can find yours there as well. I happen to think Panama is a great place to do that, and it’s working well for me. So if it works well for you, wonderful. But don’t lose sight of that, in the national life of the country you reach eventually, even if you stay at home, and in your own life.