The fringe benefits of failure

2010-01-08 00:00

I AM not a motivational speaker. As a matter of fact, I think motivational speaking is not all it is made out to be. Many motivational speakers say many things about how to respond when you learn your matric results. They do this in an attempt to dissuade many Grade 12 pupils from committing suicide if they find they have not passed Grade 12. This is because, year in and year out, we are confronted with sad stories of young people who take their lives upon discovering that they have failed.

It is not only those studying Grade 12 who take their lives upon hearing news of failure. We have heard stories of children as young as 12, who take their lives just because they have flunked a test or an exam. These are sad stories, stories that South Africa can do without.

The reason I say motivational speaking is overrated is because, despite all the moving, spirited and spellbinding talks people have given regarding the issue of pupils committing suicide, we are still confronted with this malady. There are many reasons why this keeps on happening, but I am not wise enough to know them all.

I do want to touch on one aspect of this problem though. We live in a country and a world where success is ill-defined, one, moreover, where success is overrated. We are a society that frequently speaks of the evils of failure, although failure is not always such a bad thing, and we frequently speak of success even though our definition and understanding of success are not always correct.

As parents, we sometimes unwittingly push our children to the abyss by always stressing the need to pass or succeed against all odds. Sometimes we use our children to fight our battles with our neighbours and our relatives. We push them to succeed so that we can gloat and tell our neighbours and relatives that our children are feisty boffins, and we think that makes us successful parents.

While addressing the annual meeting of the Harvard University alumni, J. K. Rowling, the author of the best-selling Harry Potter series, gave a moving speech titled “The fringe benefits of failure and the importance of imagination”. In this speech, Rowling painstakingly explained to Harvard University graduates that failure is not all that bad — that quite strangely and quite paradoxically, there are fringe benefits to failure.

Those who know anything about Rowling will know that she is one of the most celebrated, successful and wealthy authors. But, says Rowling, there are very few people who failed as much as she did before she became a renowned author. She emphatically asserts that had she not failed as epically as she did, she would not have succeeded as well as she did. Sometimes, according to Rowling, “rock bottom becomes the solid foundation on which to rebuild your life.

“You might never fail on the scale that I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.”

As people and more specifically as parents, much as we all want our children to succeed and do well in life, we also need to remind and impress upon our children that happiness lies in knowing that life is not a checklist of acquisitions or achievements.

At this time of the year, when all the motivational talks have been given, when the analysts and the media have blamed all there is to blame for the failure of some of the pupils, we need look deep within ourselves.

Perhaps those young people who end up taking their lives because of failure do so because they cannot bear to look us straight in the eye once they have failed, because they know how badly and how frantically we want them to succeed, and how often we have spoken fearfully of failure.

• Sihle Mlotshwa is an independent social commentator. He writes in his personal capacity.

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