Fear of failure may be holding us back from greatness

Dr Richard Maponya
Dr Richard Maponya

The resilience of the human spirit is fascinating. Our ability to adapt to different circumstances, shape, shift and reinvent ourselves is inspirational to say the least.

A case in point is the late Dr Richard Maponya. A friend of mine recently reminded me of the man's ingenuity.

Dr Maponya ventured into everything, from retail to property development, vehicle dealerships to insurance, all with varying degrees of success.

He made the most of every opportunity and regardless of the outcome he always came out on top.

Many of us are also teeming with ideas. We recite our make-believe pitches in front of the mirror, sing to an imaginary sold out crowd in the shower and build our rental property like castles in the sky.

Yet unlike Dr Maponya, our machinations never see the light of day. Why? Because we are too risk averse.

And why are we so risk averse? For several reasons, one of which is the fear of failure and its close ally: humiliation.

Do you remember the first time you failed at something and were subsequently humiliated?

Remember the shame swirling around in the pit of your stomach, mingling with despair and effervescing as it comes into contact with discouragement?

What were you attempting to do? Sing... ride a bike... answer a question in class?

What was the reaction of the onlookers? Did they erupt into uncontrollable laughter, jeer or simply stare at you in complete and utter disbelief?

Social beings have an innate desire to belong. If we attempt new things, we ultimately seek the group's approval, respect, admiration or at least acknowledgement. If our action breeds rejection, it can have the devastating long-term consequence of causing us to always play it safe.

Such is the case with some would-be innovators today. They'll go to the grave with their ideas because of "Batho ba tla reng" - what will people say.

There are not enough support structures that look beyond one's failure and celebrate one's attempt, knowing that it is better to try and fail, than fail to try.

What did Madiba say again? "I never lose, I either win or I learn."

Still, many social settings don't encourage failure as a critical component for success, instead they use it as the final nail in the coffin that buries ideas.

Remember the embarrassing debut of Elon Musk's Cybertruck last year? The serial inventor's shatterproof glass shattered, after he had hailed the cutting edge pickup truck as indestructible. Twitter was ablaze with people poking fun at his attempts to enter the lucrative pickup truck market.

After all, who did he think he was? What was he trying to do? How dare he try something new!

Closer to home, Faith Nketsi tasted her fair share of bitter Twitter when she tried her hand at rapping. The professional twerker and reality TV star's first performances as a hip-hop artist were met with ridicule. The hashtag "RapLikeFaithNketsi" almost broke the internet.

Faith went on to affirm herself with a series of pictures captioned "The best rapper in the world". Poor thing, what else could she do?

Now, I'm not against constructive criticism. If her talent is not up to standard, society should not have to tip-toe around that fact.

However, I do believe that there is a difference between constructive criticism and the soul-destroying, dehumanising and debilitating shaming of someone for stepping out of their comfort zone and trying something different.

Let me be clear, I'm not advocating for all of us to simply throw caution to the wind, quit our day jobs, pursue our fascinations and expect to receive warm embrace from all and sundry.

I am, however, urging that we encourage innovation and a sense of adventure - within reason. I'm also calling for us as a society to embrace risk and welcome failure as the by product of invention, so that we can nurture future Richard Maponyas.

So take a leap of faith, will you, but make sure that you look before you jump. "And what if I fall," you ask. "Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?"

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