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What Oprah (and South Africa) taught me about failure

I once read a quotation that said “We are all born as originals but die as copies” because we spend too much time trying to be like everyone else. I was no different until one August night in Johannesburg in 2006. More on that night later. For now, I want you to picture me: a trilingual (English, French, and Swahili) poet and rapper in the early 2000s just trying to get “discovered.” There were big television shows in the U.S. like Def Poetry Jam where poets were getting their shot at 15 minutes of fame. Colleges were booking performers left and right and legendary hip-hop moguls like Russell Simmons were actually signing poets to record deals! Now was my shot! After 7 auditions though, I was still looking for my shot. That night in Johannesburg changed my focus forever.

One night while taking classes at the University of Witwatersrand (WITS), I went to see a poetry show featuring great poets like Saul Williams and Suheir Hammad. It was fairly dark outside and I was looking forward to just hanging out with my classmates. Out of nowhere, a woman walked up to me and the conversation went like this:

Woman: “Hi. Is your name Omekongo?”

Me: “Yes it is.”

Woman: “I saw you perform in London earlier this year. Are you performing tonight?

Me (surprised): “No.”

Woman: “You should be.”

And then she casually walked away.

All I could think was “Wow!” Not only did I look instantly cool in front of my classmates, but in my head, I said to myself: “Why am I NOT up there?” It was at that point that I realized that I didn’t need to be up there with them at the time. While I was wallowing in the fact that I’ve been rejected time and time again by many in the entertainment world, I forgot about all of the great things I had already accomplished—on my own. The fact of the matter is that by 2005, I had already performed in South Africa at Poetry Africa with great poets like “Feel a Sistah,” which was then comprised of Lebo Mashile, Napo Masheane, Ntsiki Mazwai, and Myesha Jenkins. Tumi from “Tumi & the Volume” was also on the bill. I had already traveled across America performing and, while taking classes at WITS, I was spending my afternoons travelling across Johannesburg to give motivational talks and perform in schools with local poets! I had somehow convinced myself that my work wasn’t as valuable because I kept getting rejected by mainstream media but I decided that enough was enough!

The late Zig Ziglar once said that “The bad thing about pity parties is that very few people attend and those who do don’t bring presents!” I stopped focusing on pitying myself for what I had not accomplished and started focusing on my successes. I started focusing on what I
could
do, using people like Oprah as my model. Since 2006, I have worked in or performed in 18 countries. After getting my book proposals rejected by publishing companies, I started my own publishing company—Free Your Mind Publishing. I have since produced 7 albums and published 6 books and over 85 authors. I started acting and landed a role in a soap opera called “Ya Ma’Afrika” and have become a contributor to CNN once I got serious about journalism.

Through my own efforts, my work has appeared on radio and television from SABC, the BBC, and CNN in over 150 countries. I have my own TV show now and I have appeared on albums with great artists like Angelique Kidjo and Sheryl Crow. My work has been published in books alongside leaders like Madeleine Albright, and great actors like Don Cheadle and Angelina Jolie. I even ended up in February having an article in
O Magazine
.

Am I writing all of this to impress you? No. I am writing this to impress upon you the idea that if you focus on building off of your failures, you will actually find that your failures are nothing but little successes. There is a lesson in every failure. Willie Jolley said that a setback is a set up for a comeback and Les Brown says that every “No” brings you closer to a “Yes.” I guarantee you that if you spend some serious meditative time looking at your life, you will see that you have more successes than failures in your life.

Like Oprah said, you were validated at birth. If you stop looking for approval for your work and just do your work, you will be met with success—a success defined by
you
. If you stop being jealous of the riches you see individuals possess on television, you will find that inner wealth, which is the true key to success. You must remember as Suzanne de Passe (founder of The Jackson 5) said to make the word “No” your vitamin. Let it charge you up to come back harder the next day and the day after that and forever. Develop an attitude of giving back to the world and stop thinking of what the world should give to you. If you can develop this type of mindset, the word “failure” will never enter your vocabulary again.