Thriving is an inner state of confidence and surety in one’s own self that allows a re-evaluation and re-definition of the circumstances that have in the past and still do form the context of life. This re-definition allows for the emergence of a new identity and consequently enables the possibility for crafting a new relationship with the world.

Project Psyche, 2019

A bright and talented 16-year-old student, bound for a successful future, found his life collapsing around him. His parents were both diagnosed with chronic diabetes in quick succession. They both got laid off, with a debt of Rs 8 lakh on their head. In no time, this boy’s dreams of joining the army and playing rugby for the country had to be kept aside as he learnt to make adult decisions. These decisions would not only affect him but his whole family.

What could possibly prepare him for a world of such uncertainty? What type of skills would prepare young people to continuously evolve and adapt to changing scenarios? Is that even possible? Read on to find out how this 16-year-old chose to enter the uncertainty that life threw at him, engage with it and own his circumstance.

At the age of 12, this young boy was first introduced to the concept of life skills when he became part of a rugby programme offered by a local charity in his school. The school leader didn’t allow the boy to sign up, fearing his good grades would suffer. Instead, he was pushed into attending Spoken English classes. Fortunately, the boy’s passion for the game convinced the school administration to let him join and this one choice has made all the difference in this young boys’ life. 

After three years of running the rugby programme, due to lack of funds and access to coaches, the rugby programme was discontinued. This was a blessing in disguise since it tested this young boy and his five friends’ life skills. They demonstrated tremendous initiative and found other avenues to keep their passion for the game alive.

Cycling to faraway grounds to find other rugby players, they joined another team. Unfortunately, only two or three of them could play in tournaments as they were playing for another team now. The rest were benched, which they found unfair. This young boy took initiative, emerging as a leader, and decided to form their own team. They began to play professionally and competed in many tournaments all across India. All these experiences were preparing this young man for what life had in store ahead. 

He enrolled himself in a reputed college for his pre-university course, where for the first time he was in an English-medium institution. By the time I had even begun to understand what was written on the board, the teacher would have already wiped it off. I had to work really hard and I didn’t give up.” 

Vishnu with one of the young boys in his community, who is too young to participate in the rugby camp but was present everyday, without fail at 6 am to be around when the older children play. Photos courtesy: Vishal Talreja

It was one of those mornings when he was getting ready to go to college when he heard his mother crying in the next room. A debt collector had come to hound them because of a missed payment. His parents had been diagnosed with chronic diabetes and laid off from their jobs, a few months ago. “That was when I realised how serious the situation really was. I knew that continuing with my education would not be possible. There was no money. I found out that we owed people close to Rs 8 lakh. I was just getting used to college.”

In desperation, he tried searching for a job, while pursuing college, but being young with no qualifications and skills, no one was willing to give him work. All his dreams and aspirations flashed before his eyes. He was just another 16-year-old but forced to think beyond himself. 

With a lot of thought, he decided not to further his education, for the time being and find a way to pay back the debtors and keep his family afloat. “It wasn’t an easy time and after much cajoling from my friends, I spoke to someone at the organisation which ran the rugby programme, I was part of. He became my mentor.”

“The mentor helped me come to terms with this new reality, validated me and heard me through my anxiety and helplessness. For the first time I felt I could share my own anxieties and anger at this situation without being judged. I was angry with my parents and with life and I felt guilty about being angry.”

The mentor helped him demonstrate the agency to make viable plans to pay back the family’s debts and support his family through this crisis.

Over the course of the year, the young man made a list of the debtors and prioritised who needed to be repaid first. He negotiated new terms with them and sought the mentor’s help to raise an amount urgently which would either be an interest-free loan or a donation. An appeal raised Rs 4 lakh which came as donations, which took care of half the debt and he took a loan for Rs 2 lakh, free of interest, which left him with Rs 2 lakh to pay back. 

This wasn’t enough since he was the sole bread winner for the family now and needed a steady income for monthly expenses, medications and also to support his ailing grandparents in the village. Life was continuing to spiral out of control and he needed to act with more initiative.

He was working as a part-time facilitator at the non-profit and approached his manager for additional responsibilities. His work ethic and commitment to deliverables in a crisis stood him in good stead and he got a bigger role within the organisation with a better pay.

At the same time, his father had been paying a monthly amount to his grandparents back in the village and this boy realised that he couldn’t manage all of these expenses with his meagre salary, so he convinced his parents to move back to the village and live with his grandparents. He set himself a target of five years to pay back the loan amount and sought shelter at his sister’s house to save on rent. He worked diligently and conscientiously, stepping up and taking more responsibility.

Vishnu facilitating a session for the young boys and girls at the Rugby Summer Camp.

This young lad’s journey didn’t get easier, because life doesn’t work out that way. A few years later, the Kerala floods hit the village where his family was staying. He went back and moved his family to higher ground, leading them to safety. He says, “I wasn’t scared this time. I knew I could handle it. I didn’t panic. I was calm and collected as I made quick decisions to save important things in the flooding house.”

This young man credits his turnaround to the life skills he developed during his growing up years participating in adventure camps and playing rugby. Life skills helped him be better prepared for the curve balls that life threw at him, unlike his parents who panicked. It is neither poverty nor life emergencies that keep people from thriving, it is the lack of life skills and this young man learnt that early on. 

His ability to seek support, listen to good advice, make difficult choices, overcome conflict, demonstrate grit and resilience led him to move from uncertainty to stability; from denial to acceptance; from fear to courage; from being disenfranchised to empowered and from ‘I feel deprived’ to ‘I can change my circumstance’.

He became fearless as he pushed his own boundaries, to not only overcome his life crisis but help him build the agency needed to thrive.

This is the story of Vishnu, an inspiring 24-year-old living in Bangalore. Is Vishnu’s family out of poverty today? Not yet. His parents continue to be on lifelong medication, he continues to clear debt and be frugal with his expenses. Yet, when you meet Vishnu you see a young man in love with life, hopeful of his future and pursuing his dreams with the same gusto and passion he had seven years back. He recently bought a bike from his savings, supported a friend who was going through a difficult time and has re-committed to his dream to play rugby for India. 

“Life skills were the difference between the life I have today and the one I could have had when the crisis hit our family. If I didn’t have life skills, I would have been crippled, gone into a spiral of blaming life, god, my parents for everything wrong and would have probably given up all hope,” reflects Vishnu. 

True thriving goes beyond the individual and is demonstrated by how we are helping our families, communities and the planet to thrive. Recognising the critical difference that life skills made in his life, Vishnu and his friends are helping other kids in their community develop life skills in the best way they know—teaching them rugby. They are kindling the love for rugby in their community through summer camps and regular coaching programmes and using it as a platform to help kids develop the resilience, grit and agency needed to deal with life.

The young boys and girls in these impoverished neighbourhoods finally have positive role models to look up to and a real chance to thrive. 

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