“We spend so much time being afraid of failure, afraid of rejection. But regret is the thing we should fear most. Failure is an answer. Rejection is an answer. Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.”
– Trevor Noah, Born A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Comedians often draw inspiration from a painful past. Stephen Colbert lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was only 10 years old. Jim Carey grew up in immense poverty and his family became homeless when he was in his teens. Robin Williams grew up with extreme wealth and privilege but described a childhood filled will loneliness and emotional neglect. Nichole Force, author of Humor’s Hidden Power: Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve argues that, “The comedian’s sensitivity to their own pain makes them especially sensitive to the pain of others; and the relief of that pain in others helps to relieve their own pain. In this way, bringing their audience joy literally brings them joy.”
Comedian Trevor Noah’s biography fascinated me. I knew little about his upbringing other than he was born and raised in South Africa. Reading about his childhood as the son of a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father brought to light the challenges he faced. He was quite literally the offspring of a crime – the outcome of a relationship between a white man and a black woman. And with that circumstance of birth came years of never belonging, of being hidden away for fear the government would take him from his mother, of abuse at the hands of an alcoholic stepfather, of abject poverty, and of the harsh reality of growing up during apartheid. There is humour in this thoughtful coming-of-age story, however, and Noah appears as resilient, mischievous, and steadfastly determined to not only survive but thrive in spite of his circumstances.
Noah experienced many rejections and he most certainly has come to achieve great success. His idea that success is an answer and rejection is an answer fascinated me. To look at success and failure as objective points of data was a novel way of looking at how we perceive the things life throws at us, and the choices we make. It really pushes us to acknowledge the value of knowing.
Most thought provoking, however, was Noah’s comment, “Regret is an eternal question you will never have the answer to.” What a brilliant way to look at how we sometimes approach risk taking. To never know whether one would have succeeded or failed is, in many ways, a tragedy far greater than failure. It’s the question that will never and can never be answered. An ongoing accumulation of unanswered “what if” moments can easily turn into an unfulfilled life.
I shared this quote today with the 19 Prefect hopefuls who applied for our school’s coveted grade 12 leadership positions. I spoke to them as a group, prior to distributing each girl’s individual decision letter that would bring joy to some and disappointment to others. In sharing the quote, I hoped to convey the importance of what they had elected to do: They purposefully and bravely chose to accept one of two answers – yes or no. It took courage on each of their parts, and demonstrated a willingness to take a chance. What each girl achieved in seeking out the answer to the question was clarity. What each avoided was regret, the eternal question to which there is no answer.
I suspect that tonight will be an evening of satisfaction for some and disappointment for others. Regardless of how girl feels, there is value in these moments. For those girls who were successful, they should savour the outcome but also know that each time they ask a question in life, the answer won’t always be yes. A no will most certainly come at some point.
And for those girls who were not successful, I hope they realize that the no answer they received today is only one answer of many yet to come. There will most certainly be beautiful yes moments in their future. And while they might not be able to see past their disappointment today (or even tomorrow), I know they will be stronger, wiser and more prepared to benefit from a yes because they managed a few no moments along the way.
So here’s to a life of being brave, of taking chances, and seeking the answer to life’s many questions. Here’s also to living a life of no regrets.