The man in the mirror

Somebody asked me the other day whether I liked what I saw when looking in the mirror. I thought about this for a while and concluded that indeed I like what I see when I look into the mirror. In other words, I am quite pleased with myself. This is so because I often receive positive feed-back about who I am and what I do. And as an ordinary mortal, like most of us, I also like to conform to what is found acceptable. So I am quite pleased about myself, because I am acceptable to my environment. This at first was an encouraging perception but as I thought about it a bit more, instead it began to worry me. You see, being pleased with who I am and what I do, does not necessarily motivate or encourage me to do more, to do better and to achieve better results. Instead it may encourage me to stay at the level where I am, not making the full use of my potential and not setting higher goals but stay at a rather mediocre level.

One of the favourite TV shows is American Idol. Thousands of young people line up during the initial selection process to get a chance to demonstrate their musical talents to the judges and the public at large. Out of those thousands only a few make it to Hollywood and get the chance to continue to compete and from here on participants drop out one by one until the final two remain, out of which the public chooses who their new American idol is. What amazes me is the incredible talent that the youngsters display, the very hard work they put in to perform to the best of their ability, the motivation and guts that all candidates have to try and get where they want to be. They really work so hard to make it happen for themselves which I find amazing for people so young, as most of them are still teenagers.

Think about it. It seems that younger people have more guts and are braver to explore the boundaries of their potential than older people. Why is this so? It seems that somewhere in the process of growing up we learn to doubt our full potential, often after negative feed- back or discouragement by others. As a result we stay where we are, satisfied with the mediocre standards set by our environment. So what does it take to continue to explore one’s own potential and to pursue our dreams? It is the ability to learn from disappointment, take in feed back, find a way to improve, trying not to make the same mistake and keep on trying.

Watch a small child grow up and learning to walk. It will try and fall down – again and again – until it finally makes the first few steps alone and enjoys the achievement with that big smile on the baby face. This is an amazing achievement, which is only arrived at by trying hard and not giving up. The process is not without fear, frustration or pain but there is no way stopping the baby from falling down, getting up and trying again, until it finally succeeds. And after mastering the first steps, the process doesn’t end there. Now the child wants and will learn to walk longer and faster and will try to jump. But there are roadblocks on the way in the form of anxious parents and caretakers, who cannot stand to see their child suffer and discourage it from exploring the limits of their abilities. I often observe parents stopping their children from doing things saying “Don’t do this” or “Don’t go there. You will fall down.” While meaning well and wanting to protect their child from getting hurt, they actually discourage it and prevent it from exploring and learning in the process. Parents, caretakers and teachers will instead do well to encourage children to explore and expose them to their environment as much as possible, without bringing them in danger, and give them feed back that will help instead of discourage them.

It is much the same in doing business as well. Few entrepreneurs will get it right the first time around and many will make mistakes and wrong choices while people around them are ready to discourage them from pursuing their dream to own a business. Those who are able to reflect about what went wrong, learn, try and improve and pursue, will in the end be the successful ones. Remember that nobody will do it for you. Developing a positive attitude towards failure will help us to move on.

As a parent and employer I have learnt to appreciate children and workers making mistakes as this provides for the opportunity to coach them and for themselves to learn and improve. I prefer that they make mistakes, while they are still in development. Later it may be too late.

Now, consider the mediocre standards set and followed here in our business environment. When I ask why the quality of services, work and production falls short of certain standards, I often get an answer like: “Well, this is Ethiopia.” or “We are in Africa.” And my response is: “Yes, I know that, but why are we satisfied with only half the job done?” “Why do we accept such low standards?” Don’t we deserve more than this? Why should mediocrity be good enough? Ethiopian people are known to be proud of their identity, their culture, their history. But can we be proud of what we do today? Will our children be proud of what we have done? Will we continue to follow the road to mediocrity or will we change direction and go for a better destination? Will we continue to be pleased with our performance or will we stretch to the maximum of our ability and achieve better results? The choice is ours.