Now that I am a grown-up, there are so many things I wished I had known when I was a teenager in Grade 7 in 1983 at Webner Street Primary School, a township school on the Cape Flats.
The circumstances in which one was born, might have been dire; but it is not what will determine the outcome of one’s life. It is how one shapes one’s future with the tools one has inherited, even if these were limited. I did not know before, that admitting to being vulnerable is not weak; but shows strength, courage and character – and this is how one develops into a well-rounded individual. I used to believe that men don’t do vulnerable. I also used to think asking for help is weak. Now I know that asking for help is the coolest thing ever.
Do not strive for perfectionism. Perfectionism is not excellence; but rather it is about trying to earn external approval. It’s about what will people think? Am I good enough?
Rather, focus trying to do your best under whatever circumstances. Do not seek constant validation from others.
A few years ago I was asked to write the Forward to Nelson Mandela’s No Easy Walk to Freedom. What struck me immediately was that his speeches were not perfect rhetorical flushes; but they were honest, genuine and expressed his values.
Generously own when you are at fault, but accept your faults without self-blame.
Self-care is important. A healthy relationship with oneself is crucial.
There is no reason to feel shame about who you are.
Be kind and gentle to yourself. Love yourself. Treat yourself as your best friend. Each of us are born unique – beautiful in our own image.
You are worthy of happiness. If you don’t learn to like yourself as you are, not only will others will find it hard to do so, but it stunts your potential. When you find yourself veering into negative criticism of yourself, self-answer it with compassion.
Asking for help, especially when those we trusted have failed us in the past may be difficult, but it is crucial for self-care.
I used to think that one is born with talent. Wrong, talent is acquired through dedication, effort and commitment.
When in school, I used to think that if I get educated, get a job, life will be smooth sailing, with no obstacles, and only good.
Life will have ups and downs – it is how we navigate it that matters.
Don’t let bad teachers, family members and friends with negative judgements about you define who you are.
Desist from entitlement, to claim one’s preferences deserves priority over that of others.
Not only does a culture of entitlement lesson the motivation to put in the hard work, it fuels anger, resentment and opposition.
Don’t base your sense of self on being a victim, no matter how justifiable it may be.
This means not to play the victim when things go against you; but to endeavour to rise in spite of outside forces.
Forgive people quickly – that does not condone their behaviour.
Do not be controlled by setbacks – let it motivate you. Mistakes are not judgements of your character, sense of self or identity; but opportunities for learning.
Banish the fear of failure, the fear of trying, and the fear of taking on unfamiliar challenges. See failures as learnings, opportunities for growth and development.
Character is when everything goes wrong, and one still does one’s best, coping with setbacks and not influenced by someone else’s prejudiced view of oneself – whether friends or partners.
What appears to be rejection, failure and disappointment should not define who you are, should not result in a loss of your sense of self, identity or self-worth.
Such things are not permanent, but transitional.
Often what appears to be failure is the catalyst for success.
I was pushed out of job in government for being critical – but that in unleashed new opportunities.
I decided to establish a foundation, Democracy Works Foundation, to promote the democratic ideals I believe in, which is now in seven other countries – and the largest of its kind in the region.
Self-worth should not be defined by material success, ostentatious displays of wealth and bling. Neither is success about being superior to others.
Success is about striving to develop to your full potential – to become the best you.
It is about doing your best, continuously learning and improving.
The good thing is one is not born with fixed intelligence, talent and natural skills. In fact, all of these can be developed over time.
The importance is to develop a “growth” mindset, rather than a fixed mindset.
Carol Dweck, who wrote the book, Mindset, calls the idea that intelligence can be developed as a growth mindset through consistent application.
Alfred Binet, who invented the IQ test was disturbed at how it has been abused to foster a mindset that intelligence is fixed.
“A few modern philosophers assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity … which cannot be increased. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism … With practice, training, and above all, method, we increase our attention, our memory, our judgement and literally become more intelligence then we were before.”
Sadly, many people are overly conscious about being perceived to be “clever”, and only do things they are already good at, because they fear failure of attempting new things will show they are not clever.
Attempting new challenges, unfamiliar things, will increase once’s intelligence, skills and talent.
Similarly, one’s personality is also not fixed. One can cultivate the kind of personality one desires if one works on it.
Always treat others in the same way you want to be treated.
Abandon toxic beliefs that you may have learned from family, community, even school – hopefully not.
The skill to at all times retain the hope that things can be turned around however wretched it may appear is as important.
As the US writer Rebecca Solnit so convincingly argue in another context that hope doesn’t mean denying difficult realities.
It means “facing them and addressing them”, and acting on them.
Stand for your values; even if you stand alone.
I was sued by former President Jacob Zuma for R20 million for alleged defamation after criticising his appalling behaviour. Now many years later Zuma may finally face corruption charges.
Life is not about how long you live; but about the legacy you leave, that will outlive you. Think about Steve Jobs – who brought us the Apple computer.
Others live up to 100; but hardly leave any legacy.
Look at the problems as entrepreneurial opportunities – if you can solve it here – you can export your solutions to the world.
The action of individuals matter.
Think about Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and more recently Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who, at 15, has inspired millions around the world to take to the streets and demand action on climate change.
Or about Tarek Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, who, in protest against corruption, set himself alight on 17 December 2010, and ignited the Tunisian Revolution, which lead to the Arab Spring and the toppling of many North African autocratic governments.
Be, as Gandhi said, the leader you want to see in others in your own arena.
– William Gumede is Founder and Executive Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation; and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg).
This is an adaption from a valedictory address to Grade 7 boys at the Ridge School, Westcliff.
Gumede is a retired trustee of the school and was chairman of the school’s transformation committee.
*This article was originally published on the News24 website. To view the article on their site click here.