When I write my articles, I often ask wiser men and women for advice. This time, I asked Hanna Mollan from Norway for ideas. She knows Pakistan well, having worked with humanitarian aid in Sindh some years ago; now she is in Ramallah, Palestine. She suggested that I consider something the acclaimed Indian writer, Vikram Seth, has said. Let me just remind you that he is the author of several award-winning books, including “A Suitable Boy”, which came in 1993. This year, the follow-up book called “A Suitable Girl”, is due out soon.

Anyway, Seth was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s literary programme “Desert Island” in January, but I listened to a recording of it recently. The writer explained that until he was in his mid-30s, he was a very shy man; even if he was in a one-on-one conversation with somebody, he hardly dared look the person in the eyes.

But then, an old friend in her 70s gave him the advice that he needed. She told him that she had been the same way till she was about 40; she was so worried about what other people thought of her that it hampered her daily life and work. After that, she focused more on what she thought about them.

To observe other people and to think about what they think and feel, and learn from them, is what a good writer does. It is not really important who the writer is. He or she is often just holding up a mirror to others and to oneself. The writer tries to make sense out of it all and, at best, give some advice, and, perhaps, try to analyse and understand other people’s stories.

In life, we are all writers. We all have to make sense of ourselves and our surroundings so that we can live better lives and achieve good results. In the end, it is not really important what others think of us; well, it is not the most important. What is essential is that we can say: “I did my best, not as much for myself, but for others and after that, it is all in God’s hands.”

This “golden rule” is important at all levels in life and society – i.e. from the individual level all the way up to the national and international levels. And, as it always is, it is the lower levels that are the pillars of the arches above.

Let me now consider some recent events at the higher levels and draw some lessons.

I was quite impressed by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to China and I believe much positive can yield from it. Yet, I was not impressed by the subservient way the media treated the visit. Pakistan does not have to go cap in hand to any country. It may need assistance and cooperation from other lands, but it is always based on a ‘take-and-give’ approach.

In addition, Pakistan and its people should be proud of the achievements made in many sectors, not just be blinded by another, larger country’s success. Besides, some of the means that other countries use to reach their goals may not be acceptable to us.

True, Pakistan could have done better in many fields, such as production and distribution of electricity and provision of education and social services for the needy. But development cannot be borrowed or bought wholesale, from China or anywhere else. It can only be achieved through the many small steps towards agreed goals. We have to build the road as we walk it, with lessons and advice from others, but based on own decisions. And as Seth said: “What others say about us is not the most important, but that we find out what is right for us and then do our best.”

Let me mention another example from recent news - something that carried us away, notably Malala Yousafzai and her great speech at the UN a few days ago. I believe everyone, irrespective of nationality, felt proud of the young woman that day. She and the local and international supporters behind her may help us reach universal primary education (UPE) faster than we otherwise would and we may gain a better understanding of why it is important that everyone goes to school. She has become a symbol for the cause she champions. But we must also remember that there are many other everyday heroes and heroines. That does not make her smaller, but it makes many others bigger. That is also what she wants and she has already said it in her speech. She does what Seth advised us to do: lift our eyes and be brave so that we can reach the goals we set.

Let me also specifically draw attention to Pakistan’s relations with its neighbours. Recently, India and Afghanistan has again been made topical. Why do we so often exaggerate negative aspects? Yes, the record should be set straight as regards the terrorist attacks, but let us not dwell on bygones for too long. Pakistan needs to build cordial relations with all its neighbours, especially India and Afghanistan - and China. Then it can also be possible to stand up to America and establish more balanced relations with the superpower.

I believe that some of the reasons for shortcomings on the implementation of domestic and international development agendas can be found in Pakistan’s uncertainty about its identity and lack of self-confidence. If we as individuals, groups and nations are satisfied with whom and how we are, we can afford to be more generous with others. But we should still be proud, but not arrogant. We should be sincere and principled, yet, flexible and open - and happy.

If we are comfortable in our own skin, even when our own shortcomings are revealed, we also become a more trustworthy actor and partner to others. We may even be allowed to voice criticism in order to find solutions. We need to make the foundation for real dialogue and progress more solid.

And all this, is it just talking and dreaming? Is it just wishing for better relations between different classes and segments within the country and, indeed, between neighbours? Is it just something that can only be practiced at lower levels, in the home, school, workplace, mosque and church, but not in ‘realpolitik’ at higher levels?

I believe it can be practiced at all levels. Pakistan must become more sincere and open, more searching and open-minded when trying to find new ways and achieve results. To be righteous is not an end-result. Even Seth would agree that it is deeds that are important. But words are also important in defining the foundation, debating issues and setting priorities, in the process of creating self-confidence. Is it not time that Pakistan becomes self-confident?

It took Vikram Seth over 30 years to reach it; it has taken Pakistan twice as long already - but the future is in our hands, open to be shaped by all of us - confidently.  

Postscript: I come from Norway, a country where we have often had little confidence. We have been a smaller and poorer country than our neighbours. Sometimes we have felt that we were the ‘last in Europe’, not only geographically. We are gaining self-confidence now and I believe the little land, also oil-rich, will become better from it. Self-confident and more independent, but not arrogant, I hope! We must always ask questions and be willing to learn from others.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.