Success comes packaged in a string of failures

By Osmund Agbo

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” – C.S. Lewis

A good number of kids have dreams about what they would like to be when they grow up, except if you are from my generation. Growing up in Eastern Nigeria in the early seventies, our parents did most of the dreaming for us. That was how Chuks who loved to take things apart and fix all kinds of fixable ended up becoming a lawyer and not the engineer he always wanted. The problem most often is less about who originated those dreams, than it is that most people tend to believe they may have failed woefully should they fail to actualize them. In order words, we have cultivated such a fixed mindset and so tend to believe that it’s either we have what it takes or we don’t. It then makes us see failure as a proof that one is simply not meant to succeed instead of seeing it as a natural part of life.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Orange County New York, is a 219 years old institution established on March 16th, 1802. It is located about 80km north of New York City and enjoys a mesmerizing view of the Hudson River. WestPoint as it is sometimes called, is arguably one of the most prestigious institution in the world, a military equivalent of Harvard or Oxford. The institution is famous for her reservoir of very distinguished alumni and in its rank were two former US Presidents, a host of foreign Heads of State, famous generals and multiple purple heart recipients. It is where cadets are educated and leaders groomed for commissioning into the United States Army.

A West Point Cadet during Basic Training is made to experience pure chaos with loss of control that often led to the decimation of the entire unit. But that’s beside the point.  During the debriefing sessions, students are asked to review their mistakes after each simulation. The officers make cadets realize that failure is life and that the ability to learn from it, is key to growth. In order words, instead of ruminating over failure, they emphasize the imperative of a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset and that’s how they develop extraordinary leaders.

I digress. Dike Chukwumerije is without doubt, Nigeria’s most celebrated performance poet. To know him is to love him and appreciate the art of spoken words. But that’s not even scratching the surface. This literary phenom has to his credit, eight published works including Urichindere which some have referred to as a Magnum Opus. The book won him the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Prose Fiction in 2013.

I first chanced into Dike’s act about two years ago when I watched a video clip of his performance at the 23rd Nigeria Economic Summit in October of 2017. He did not just captivate his audience but mesmerized them with a rendition of his poem, “The Wall and The Bridge”. He preached copiously about a new Nigeria that is socially conscious and totally different from the current mosaic of tribal enclaves.

For someone that good in what he does, you would think that Dike was groomed from birth at the literary temples of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. But none of that. In fact, his earliest exposure to poetry was only through his elder brother Che and another friend named Onesi Dominic. All his life, the young man had two dreams. One was to get into law school and graduate with first class honors. Another was to become a Nigerian equivalent of a ‘kwanjang’ with such a mastery of the art of Taekwondo that could earn him a ticket to the Olympics. Although he did become a lawyer, he was few grade points shy of graduating with first class honors which devastated him. He certainly didn’t make it to the Olympics, even though he almost lost his left eye in one of the fights. It was in the process of picking up the pieces from those personal disappointments that he found his eureka moment by pure serendipity. In his words, he realized “I can memorize for Africa.” His several other talents hitherto silent in the background, became manifest as he journeyed and groped in the dark, pursuing his childhood dreams.

History is replete with stories of failures suffered by the world’s greatest people in their journey through life. From tech wizards like Steve Jobs to science geniuses like Albert Einstein. We were told how they were able to productively channel the energy of disappointments to achieve stratospheric success. The story of Jack Ma, the legendary Chinese billionaire is one of those made for the books. Earlier in his life, he failed so hard and so fast that it almost seemed like his name was synonymous with failure.

Jack failed examinations twice in Primary School and thrice in Middle School. After High School, he applied to the Universities but failed the entrance exams thrice, before finally gaining admission into Hangzhou Normal University. After his graduation, he applied to Harvard University for a total of ten times but got rejected each time. When it was time to search for job, thirty companies rejected his applications. Even when KFC made its debut in China, Jack was the only one out of twenty-four others that applied and interviewed for a job with the American fast-food chain and got rejected. The rest got in, leaving just him out in the cold.

Despite experiencing such a litany of disappointments, however, Jack Ma persevered and few years down the road, he founded Alibaba, which has since become one of the biggest e-commerce companies on the planet. Today with a net worth of $51bn, he is listed among the world’s richest people.

The greatest challenge remains how to spin it, in order to convince someone that the inability to achieve the dream of a lifetime, is somehow a good thing. But at least you can read out these few lines from Dike’s memoirs:

“…sometimes when God puts a goal in your heart it is not so that you can achieve it. No. Sometimes, He puts it there is so that in reaching for it, you can stretch to your own full height.”

What does not kill us, makes us stronger.

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: