Monday, February 3, 2014

Success and Failure; Which is more important?

Throughout our lives we have been taught to value success and reject failure. In my country Sierra Leone, a man's worth is usually estimated by the amount of material wealth he accumulates. In our country therefore, the ultimate measure of success is material wealth one accumulates.

During the Soviet era, many Sierra Leoneans were given friendship scholarships to go and study in the Soviet Union. Many of these fellows came back to the country eminently qualified with degrees in technical areas such as marine engineering, automotive engineering, food preservation, urban planning and many other areas that were vital to the development of our country's resource base.

But alas, since these fellows had gone to a socialist country with essentially no way of making money during their intensive study, with the exception of short holiday trips to mainland Europe and the United Kingdom, most of them came back to Sierra Leone with great academic qualifications and empty pockets. They were JCs without anything.

As material wealth was our ultimate measure of a man's worth, Soviet graduates who had not studied medicine were treated as people with inferior education and a lot of them did not get the jobs they had hoped for and just became frustrated people in Freetown.

I can remember a particular instance in which a Sierra Leone Russian graduate came to a relative of ours who was a politician, asking for help to get a job. He complained that since he came, he had written many job applications but had not even been invited for an interview once. He was completely demoralized and regretted why he had not managed to find his way to Europe, but had instead naively made his way back to Sierra Leone with the hope of contributing to national development.

Our politician relative pretended to show great concern and asked the poor fellow what he had studied back in the Soviet Union.

"Food preservation," the Soviet graduate replied, emphasizing the importance of food preservation technology in ensuring the long term use of easily perishable products. He stated that he had therefore acquired a masters degree in food preservation.

The politician waited until the fellow had left before he burst out laughing.
"What a funny man," he told the group of hang arounds he was sitting with.

"We don't have enough food in this country and yet this funny bor goes overseas and instead of studying medicine he decides to study food preservation. Where is the food to preserve?"

All the other ignorant big men sitting around the politician burst out laughing at the joke of the fellow who came from a country in which there was not enough food, but had gone to Russia to study food preservation.

The irony of the story is that the main reason why there is so much food shortage in Sierra Leone is precisely because we lack the basic skills of food preservation.

During the Mango season in our  hometown Segbwema, a town with hundreds of mango trees in those days, there would be so much mangoes that the town practically smelled of the succulent fruit. Yet the main beneficiaries of this bountiful harvest were the fruit flies and honey bees. Mangoes used to ripen, fall and just rot all over the town creating garbage and burying the town in the stench of rotting fruit. Same for Oranges and guavas. After a typical Mango or Orange season in Segbwema, you won't see mangoes again until the following year, as nobody had fruit preservation skills in our entire area

People did not learn fruit preservation as mangoes and oranges weree not rice or cassava and therefore in our area these were not considered "real food". Probably our Russian brother would have helped to preserve all that rotting fruit, but he was considered a failure and even if the fellow had decided to start his own food preservation business, he would not have had access to capital. Up to this day I wonder what became of that fellow.
My Idea of Success

So, even though most of our brothers and sisters who went to study in Russia came back after successfully completing their academic studies. They came back to a country that regarded them as failures simply because they made the mistake of coming back to Sierra Leone broke, without dollars or pounds jingling in their pockets.

This phenomenon was not only restricted to Russian graduates. I don't know if things have now changed in Sierra Leone, but when we were in college, our brothers who had finished high school and were working for Red Cross and other NGOs during the war were more respected and revered even though some of them were just entry-level staff in these organizations. As far as our relatives were concerned, we went back to Segbwema speaking big English with empty pockets and the only respect that we even got was because many rich people had gone to the college we were attending. People thought that we had finished school and instead of making money we had decided to waste time and go to college probably to become a teacher. As teachers those days were the most hard up of all government employees, we were regarded as aspiring potential failures.

In Freetown, our glorious capital, buried in those days under the weight of ill gotten gains, with corruption, bribery and fraud as rampant and common as rain, the popular saying was, "Den say Bailor Barrie, you say Davidson Nicol?" Davidson Nicol being a celebrated academic and Bailor Barrie being an extremely rich immigrant businessman who, if my memory serves me right, died in a tragic road accident in his prime. To the basic Sierra Leonean, it was considered more successful to be a Bailor Barrie than a Davidson Nicol, even though the latter was one of most celebrated academics Africa had ever produced and was at one time the head of the nation's largest University.
Some People Call Him a Failure!

So who and what is a failure. My hypothesis is that our societies have failed in defining who and what failure is, by essentially assuming that failing at something makes you a failure, especially failing to acquire material wealth.

As far as I am concerned, failing at something does not make you a failure.
The great American inventor Edison once said that for every successful invention he made, he had failed over thousands of times.

As Sierra Leoneans, we are so crippled by the fear of failing that some people do not even take risks, lest they fail.

Now imagine the transformative decision in the 60s by Americans to go to the moon, and calculate how many ways that venture could have failed. If Americans had just concentrated on the many way the Apollo mission would have failed they would never have even decided to build a rocket, let alone decide to fly to the moon, flying as fast as a bullet.

I have been part of diaspora organizations and even attempted to mobilize and form a few that would help address some of the problems we have back home. But as Sierra Leoneans, we are so programmed to focus on failure that most of the discussions are crippled by the thousands of ways the projects or programs could fail. It is as if one the first day we are born, we are bathed with water collected from the river of pessimism.

I know of a particular African organization that has been trying to build a website for 7 years. The money is available, but a focus on negatives and worrying over failure and the desire to make it outstanding has stalled the program for seven long years.
My definition of "a failure" is not a person who does not succeed. A failure in my opinion, is a person who does not even try. Failure is not the lack if success, it is the absence of effort. Based on my own belief, people who try and have failed are not failures they are simply people who did not succeed. At the least they succeeded in trying.

Failures are people who don't even try. The failure is not the man whose farm has failed, but the man who thought of making a farm, but was so crippled by fear that the farm may fail that he lacked the testicular fortitude to even start working on the farm.

So as Sierra Leoneans, we should not fear to fail. What we should fear is not trying. To me it is not a matter of whether you failed at a project, as long as you tried, you are a success, because you can always learn from your mistakes or the things you overlooked and achieve the result you want the next time around.

So to the matter of the Sierra Leone Russian graduates. These brothers were not failures, it was the society that failed them. The society failed by making the effort to engage these young men and women with the vital skills that would have contributed to the nation's progress.

So the next time when somebody laughs at you because you tried and did not succeed and hence regards you as a failure, don't let it bother you. As the Liberian musicians Zack and Gebah used to say, "Just Keep on Trying, cause as long as there is life, there is always hope."

To conclude, a failure to me is a man who has lost hope or simply lacks the motivation to try. A man who has given up. For many of us, there have been times when the future that we envisioned for ourselves has been so bleak that we simply gave up, even though we had cars, houses and everything other people may regard as success.

So before you think of yourself as a failure, think of the man who once went up a tree trying to kill himself. Another fellow walking by saw him and asked him what he was doing.

"I am tired, I want to kill myself, I want to end my sorrowful life. I am a failure"

The other man said, "Before you jump, could you please send your shirt down for me. I have beem trying to to go look for work, but have no suitable shirt. Your shirt would change my life. So please send it down." The fellow did not jump as he saw a man who had things so tough, but he was still willing to try. He saw a man with the potential to succeed.

So at the end of the day, both success and our traditional definition of failure are equally important. The main problem is not failure, the main problem is not trying at all.


Martin said...

Hey Mr. Blogger you were right.I studied in Russia and was never able to get a job in Sierra Leone. I was lucky to come to Germany where I am now living. Some of my friends were not so lucky.

Barbara Staengl said...

what advice can I give a 24 year old friend in Sierra Leone outside of Freetown who's looking for a job and has got no money at all as it seems?

George B said...

It seems a worthy goal to fund someone in Freetown in their efforts to preserve food. All the tools to do so are on the WEB.