Very often in life we look at failure or being unsuccessful with a heavy heart, disappointment and often a lot of regret.
We do not have the energy to reflect on the important lessons setbacks teach us and so we end up either making the same mistakes or not seeing opportunities elsewhere. This learning deficiency is made worse because we often do not learn much from success either.
Often when we succeed, we take it for granted or get lost in the celebration and chest-thumping that we forget to reflect on how we attained success in the first place. Thus, from both failure and success, we seem to ‘learn nothing and forget nothing’.
So, where did all this reflection about the importance of learning from failure come from? Well, on Friday night, at 3am in Uganda, 8pm where I am, one of my sisters posted a message on the family ‘whatsapp’ group - ‘guys anyone who has a telephone number of the police…we have a thief in the house…’. I panicked and didn’t quite know what to do, being thousands of kilometres away. I searched through my phones and sent three numbers of police officers I had, and sent messages to the police officers, ‘… Afande, call my sister on … urgently, there is a thief in their house…’. I was unsuccessful on both, so I thought about what lessons I pick from my latest failure. To have a more comprehensive reflection, I decided to reflect a bit more on past failures or unsuccessful moments and what I learnt. It was not an easy exercise as I had forgotten many of my past failures, typical of what we usually do in life. On deeper, thought I recalled...
In S.4 Vacation, I wanted to learn how to drive and get a driver’s licence. My father paid for driving lessons, I learnt how to drive but failed the driving test, in large part because I didn’t give ‘kitu-kidogo’ to the officer in charge ‘passing’ me. I encountered the injustice of corruption for the first time then and that experience has partly contributed to the anti-corruption crusader that I am today. In the end, I worked with my mum to grow potatoes whose yield was excellent. Through my sweat, I contributed to my family’s needs - perhaps a better use of my vacation than if I had got a diving permit and God knows what it could have led me to.
In S.6 vacation, I tried to get holiday job, like all my friends, some got to work in Petrol Stations and others in an Indian biscuit factory. Through my dad, I managed to get a job in a furniture shop in the industrial area where my role was to sand paper the wood, I did it for about a month and the conditions were so bad that I gave up before my first pay. After a talk with my mum, I started making and selling odii (simsim paste) and together, we opened a roadside kiosk where I sold sweets, sugar and other groceries. It didn’t make much money but at least kept me busy.
I had not succeeded in getting a paying job but my failure got me to venture into other things I had never imagined. The experience I gained was useful but most importantly, had I remained idle, God knows what I would have ended up doing.
I had always wanted to be a lawyer and so in S.6 I applied for law but with my 3-subject combination (having refused to take on a forth because I didn’t think it was necessary), I couldn’t get the grades to go to law school. I wasn’t successful and when my dad offered to pay for me to do law, I decided against it as I was admitted for Social Sciences on Government Sponsorship.
Looking back at what I am now, I am happy I did the course I did. Again, God knows what I would have become had I studied law.
When I finished University, the first job I applied for, I was invited for an interview to become a secretary for one of the managers in the EU. I did the interview and found it very easy but I wasn’t proficient with word processing and a certain dreadful icon on computer, I didn’t save my work and when time was up, I knew I wasn’t going to succeed as I spent my time stressing over that icon. I was disappointed but thank God I wasn’t successful, for had I got the job, my career would have gone in a direction I perhaps wouldn’t have desired.
Lying on my bed and reflecting on all the above unsuccessful plans and several others like failed relationships and other setbacks, I have no regrets whatsoever for when one window closed, God opened another and I just had to see the opportunities. One can argue that, all this is just consolation and had I succeeded, perhaps my life may have been different or even better. Well, may be or maybe not. What I can say is that I have no regrets whatsoever for taking on the other opportunities that arose.
Most profoundly however, I learnt never to give up, keep believing and being resilient. I have learnt since that, that is the story of successful people. Like Martin Luther King Jr teaches us, ‘…it is not the number of times you fall that matter, but how many times you get up…you fall 7 times, rise 8 times…’
So, dear colleagues at ActionAid, do the best you can always but if that proposal is not successful…if the appointment doesn’t come when you desire…if your workshop isn’t successful…or a citizen action doesn’t work, don’t give up. Learn from it and do it better next time.
And some of you may be wondering what happened to my sister. Well my brother in - law fought back and the thief manged to escape the ‘Acholi wrath’. And when I asked my sister, what lesson she could share…she said, ‘…the police shouldn’t be your first option when in such need…’. This was after the police officer they called that night, came at 7 PM, the following day - apparently, he was drinking the whole night as they had just got their salary and so didn’t hear his phone ring!
I also learnt through my reflections that all the failures turned out to be setbacks for a comeback - and indeed I eventually was successful in all I did, so there’s a reason and time for everything.
The writer is the Country Director of ActionAid. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org