Dr. John Seward (1905-1985): A Mentor Transforms Adversity into Achievement

baseball-field

When I was growing up I dreamed of a career with a professional baseball team. I attended university on a baseball scholarship and thought I was on my way. But two short conversations changed all of that and changed my life. And I’m glad they did.

It was near the end of a grueling season. My university team was on its way to setting a record for the most losses in its history. We had travelled back and forth across the country playing teams whose star players went on to play in the major leagues. I was playing with and against some of the best talent in the game. Several seniors on my team were already reviewing contracts with professional clubs. But I was, to paraphrase a famous former ball player and sports announcer, “one of the best of the mediocre players.”

That afternoon we were playing our traditional cross-town rivals, a university that consistently fielded one of the best baseball teams in the country. Their power hitters were easily knocking balls onto the steps of the fraternities on the other side of the center field fence. Even the players at the end of their lineup were turning singles into doubles.

I had been getting more playing time as the 60+ game season wound down, and today I was in the starting lineup replacing our injured first baseman. I struck out three times, got hit by a pitch, made three fielding errors, bruised my hip chasing a foul tip into the stands, and sprained my ankle while sliding into second base.

At the end of the game, the coach gathered the team together and proceeded to single out individual players for feedback. When it was my turn, he asked me: “What are you doing on this team? How do you expect to go further playing the way you did today? What were you thinking when you did X?” He wasn’t interested in answers even if I did have any. I was disappointed with my play and now I felt humiliated, dejected, and ridiculed.

As I was leaving the field a professor, Dr. John Seward, who taught introductory psychology, which I was taking along with 350 other undergraduates, came up by my side. He said he had come out to watch the game and was delighted to learn that one of his students was playing on the team. At first, I didn’t even realize he was referring to me. The only personal recognition I had experienced at this large university was when my coach would single me out and say, “What’s your name again?”

Dr. Seward said, “Looked like you were having a really tough day out there.” I grunted some reply. But then he asked, “How are you feeling about the way you played?” I stopped walking, turned towards him with unexpected tears in my eyes, and a torrent of feelings, worries, and concerns came forth, most of which I didn’t really know were inside me. He listened to me patiently and when my outburst slowed to a trickle, he asked me, “What do you want to do about all of this?”

I didn’t have any answers to his last question then. But the next day I went to his office and thanked him for listening to me. I told him I was embarrassed about my reaction to his previous questions, but I had been thinking about what he had asked me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the two simple questions he asked me happened during a period of life transition. Those questions changed my perspective, opened me to a new way of being with people, and helped me find a way to turn adversity into achievement. His reaching out to help a young ballplayer in distress turned into one of the most influential moments of my life.

As a consequence of our interaction, I gave up my sports scholarship, quit the team, changed my major to psychology, and took what turned out to be a three-year job as one of Dr. Seward’s research assistants.

Over time we had many learning discussions that went beyond the behavioural research focus of our work. In another article (The Four Pillars: What Life Lessons I Learned from My Mentors) I summarized what I learned from Dr. Seward as learn from your fears; let adversity be a teacher; learn from mistakes; open your mind, particularly when you think you know it all; and your purpose in life is to strive to bring out the best in yourself by bringing out the best in others.

When I learned that my mentor died in 1985, I sent a letter to his wife, Georgene, expressing my belated condolences and telling her how he had influenced my life. She wrote back thanking me for my letter and telling me that she had received dozens of letters like mine from his former students.

Dr. John Seward, who obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1931 along with fellow student, Carl Rogers, was a great teacher, employer and mentor, and a leading authority on behavioural psychology. His compassion, authenticity, and mentoring will live forever in my heart. The two questions he asked me, and his genuine curiosity about my answers have become a foundation for helping myself through difficult times as well as assisting others to deal with adversity.

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