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Good thing, bad thing, who knows?

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On Saturday, we received an early morning visitor — a relative who wanted to catch me and my husband before we left the house on our various errands. She came asking for help. The severe January rains had damaged her maize crop and she had reaped a scanty harvest. She wasn’t the only one affected. She feared many would go hungry this year.

I shared with her what I’ve observed in neighbouring countries where people aren’t so dependent on maize but eat a rich diet comprising a variety of staples. She enthusiastically told me about futali — a sweet potato dish mixed with groundnuts flour. She even described variations of the dish using sweet potato, cassava, or green bananas. I suggested it was time for us to stop defining food as nsima and think more diversely about our diets. She still requested money for a bag of maize and warned she’d probably be back periodically throughout the year for additional assistance because of the predicted hunger.

In business school professor Dr Srikumar Rao’s book ‘Are You Ready to Succeed? Unconventional Strategies to Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life’, he tells the story of an old man who lived in a valley with his son. They were poor but happy and envied by their neighbours. One day, the old man used all his savings to buy the young wild horse for breeding. That same day the horse jumped the fence and ran away. The neighbours sympathised, “How terrible!” to which the old man replied: “Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?”

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Ten days later the horse returned with a whole herd of wild horses. The old man secured the enclosure to prevent further escapes. The neighbours gathered again “What good fortune!” to which the old man said: “Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?”

While his son was training the horses one of them threw him to the ground and broke his leg. It healed crookedly and left the son with a permanent limp and endless pain. “Such misfortune,” the neighbours empathised. “Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” answered the old man.

That summer, the king declared war and all young men from the village were forced into the army. The old man’s son was spared because of his injured leg. “Truly, you are a lucky man,” exclaimed the neighbours, crying over the loss of their own sons. “Good thing? Bad thing? Who knows?” said the old man.

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Leadership expert Dr John Maxwell teaches that the greatest difference between successful and unsuccessful people is the way they think. “People have no shot at success until they learn how to think correctly” Maxwell states. The biggest difference in the way successful and unsuccessful people think is their perspective on life’s challenges.

Cateura, Paraguay, is arguably the poorest place in South America. The town sprang up around capital city Asuncion’s rubbish dump and is home to 2,500 families who make their living scrounging through the rubbish. There’s no electricity, plumbing or clean drinking water. Broken homes, illiteracy, drugs and crime are rampant.

While working as an ecological technician at the landfill, Favio Chávez, a former music teacher, became deeply concerned that Cateura’s children needed something to keep them out of gangs and help them believe in a future beyond the dump. He began offering music lessons on instruments built from recycled garbage.

Today Chávez has taught music skills to over 120 children and the Recycled Orchestra performs regularly to global audiences. Well-wishers donate money and musical instruments and famous musicians give their time and talents to mentor the youth. When asked by an interviewer if he wanted to leave the slum now he had travelled all over the world one of the older children replied, “The secret is not to run away from a place. The secret is to change it.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Everything ever invented was created in response to what we commonly label as problems. Sometimes hardship is what we need to push us outside our comfort zones. Maybe my relative’s dismal crop isn’t a tragedy but an invitation to think more creatively.

The Bible describes a sick man who lay by a pool for 38 years waiting for someone to put him in when the water was stirred by an angel once a day. Only the first person in the water could be healed. In 38 years he hadn’t thought of inching his way to the edge of the pool, ready to topple himself over when the angel visited. He hadn’t thought of negotiating with whoever supplied him with food and water to throw him in at the right time. For 38 years the man lay there without devising an alternative strategy.

No wonder Jesus asked him “Are you really in earnest about getting well?” 50 years after independence perhaps we should be asking ourselves the same question.

Dr Maxwell believes the daily routine of every successful leader should involve taking a few moments at the end of each day to evaluate their experiences. “You will never make the most of the day that’s coming until you evaluate the day that has passed,” he advises.

Don’t be quick to label circumstances good or bad. View every occurrence as a learning experience. What is the situation teaching you? It could be setting you up to become a transformational leader. Like Favio Chávez.

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