On the Psyche of Failure

“THE MORE WE HAVE OPEN DISCUSSION ABOUT FAILURES, THE MORE WE EMBRACE THEM, THE MORE AS A CULTURE WE ACCEPT THEM, THE MORE PEOPLE ACTUALLY CAN SPEND TIME JUMPING ON PLANES……”

JASON NJOKU, THE FOUNDER OF IROKO

 I remember it like it was yesterday. The teacher would stand with a slight tilt towards his latest prey with a self satisfied smirk pasted on to his normally-scowling-face as his reign of terror spreads. Then he asks 5 multiplied by 9!!!

This was always followed by a five second window within which an accurate answer was expected from the student while the cane began it’s malignant descent on to the palm of the student. 

This was one of the few moments in which anyone found math class to be any fun- the teacher of course being the one enjoying himself this time.- mostly, it was plain boring. A slow burning that contrived – whether by design or otherwise- to leave the mind numbed.

FACT: after years and years of conditioning within the social experiment, one of the legacies is that we have come to dread mistakes.

In our sub-conscious, we have come to equate making a mistake to a punishment, shame, disgrace. Unsurprisingly,this colours our choices, influences our thought patterns and actions. Forces us to shift our perspectives.

Thus, Kofi is much more comfortable with a civil service job that allows him a generous salary structure with little responsibility and Ama will keep quiet during a discussion about a problem even though she knows the solution to that problem until the situation develops into a catastrophe.

We have it constantly drummed into our minds that it is a crime to be wrong. Being wrong equals a few lashes of the teacher’s cane or the embarrassment of your mates’ and teacher’s ridicule. Your mistake becomes fodder for much merriment and fun fare. So much so that you learn from a very young age that it is not worth it.

This sort of abuse we suffer from childhood handicaps us. Kills in us, the yearning to explore and learn at our own pace. To grow from learning and learning through mistakes.

failure

It stifles us. Imbibes in us the sacred fear of falling outside the lines. So we stay safely within the lines. In primary and junior high school, that means avoiding the strokes of a teacher’s lash. In the second cycle/ secondary school, it means reading only what the teacher tells you for fear of being failed in a test even when you know as plain as day that what they are teaching is wrong.

One such incident which always stuck with me was when one tutor from back in high school misspelt a word on the board and after being prompted to this mistake proceeded to reward the prompter with a series of elaborate and impressive tongue-lashing that left most of us bemused and I dare say, flabbergasted (there is something about this word by the way that I find rather appealing. Audibly, it just feels so nice-ahem!!)

These days I look back on that incident and it makes me sad. Not because of the pride that forced this teacher to leave her wrong spelling on the board and defend her mistake. I wasn’t even sad about the fact that a well-meaning, brilliant student was assaulted verbally when he had done nothing wrong.

What I find incredibly unacceptable and doubly saddening is that this incident is just symptomatic of a wider and deeper issue of the society teaching and indoctrinating its faithful, that to make a mistake is a crime of such incredible proportions and such a shameful act that people like this teacher in question was willing to defend and propagate something which was wrong. Because the real issue in this incident for me was pride. The fear of losing face, and the idea that she was being diminished in any way because she was wrong about the spelling of a word was enough to warrant this.

If this fear is preventing us from acknowledging something like a spelling mistake then how can we expect anyone to take up the mantle of responsibility in managing a multi-million dollar investment or even more importantly, being a care giver or parent. Thus we have created this system where we blame everyone but ourselves when things go wrong. This has become our fall-back. A failsafe that allows us to cope with the mediocrity that was heralded in our schools. And then we wonder why there are so few indigenous companies.

But then the question that this poses anyone with a single spark of creativity within them is this; “how will you grow?”, “how do we get better?”, “how will this nation claim the promise of greatness?”. But perhaps most damning is this question, “how do we solve our problems?”.

Because there is no constant solution that applies the world over for problem solving. I once heard that we need african solutions to our problems. The speaker no doubt basing on the belief that each challenge is singular in its nature as well as its context and thence a catch-all guaranteed solution doesn’t exist for all . This sounds true but how can we find african solutions when we have been pre-conditioned to always trust the manual and “to think outside the box rewards you with a cross.”

The worst part, is what this system of education has made us into. What do we call that person who does blindly what is expected of him without a moment’s pause and an empty look in their eye: “zombie?  You said it. So since this article is a confectionary of questions, let me end on this last one:

“Are we really building a nation of undead?”

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