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Women and the pain of success


PHOTO: Johnny Greig

What can we compare to success?? Success is the long -lasting melting chocolate on the palate of a sweet tooth, good food that fills the stomach, the feel you get from a refreshing sleep for those whose work make them eat up the sane hours of midnight with their face glued to the laptop in the bid to meet some bizarre deadlines or students who have taken all kinds of concoction including burning the energy drink “oil”. It is perhaps the feel one gets of a yes to a marriage proposal, a willing bride on her wedding day, a Catholic Priest on his day of ordination, the birth of a long awaited child, the announcement of a pregnancy result to a woman who has been waiting on the Lord or the Doctors (depending on the level of spirituality) and battling with childlessness for years, the first cries of a baby heard by the mother after a night of painful labour, and “I beg to apply” as we say in the local Nigerian pidgin who just got a letter of appointment from “a five star- rated” multinational company, a dedicated doctor who just saved a life, a two year old who successfully tied his shoe strings after many tear – soaked attempts.. Even the evil smirk of a schemer who just achieved his evil plot… I can go on.

Success does not come through the wand of the fairy godmother – it comes as we have all heard through the dint of hard work, although am not sure how many millennials believe this these days. Yes, we have old sayings that underscore this. The Yoruba proverb Ikoko tio jata, idi re a gbo noo – the pot that must  enjoy pepper must first feel the smart and heat from the firewood, the Igbos of Southeast Nigeria hold it true that a little boy who must sit with elders and kings must give up playing in the sand, wash his hands clean before he can have the privileged elevation – proverbs captured in famous writings of Wole Soyinka Kongi’s Harvest and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.  Ka onye nye anyi, ka ani enye – what you give the earth is what the earth will give to you – the Midwest Igbos will say. These examples are endless, but the truth is that hard work is not the real pain of success.


The pain is not before but after you have attained success just like labour pain cannot equate the aggregated anxieties and fears a mother will face all through her child’s growing – from infancy to teenage years and perhaps beyond. In a number of experiences from female executives especially, success becomes the beginning of the boss feeling threatened by “this woman” and begins to build obstacles that are meant to stifle any possibility of future successes. Accolades for a successful outing is greeted with an off -hand nod, a shrug of the shoulders, it must mean nothing to you or at least you must show it means nothing so you do not offend the sensibilities and insecurities of other team members or your manager. You must default to the coy syndrome, less you offend the ego of “the other”. You begin to work out of your nature so that your action is not perceived as inordinate ambition. You must freeze moving forward at some point and watch your project fractured by the impasse that may come from concerned bystanders and peripheral actors. Threats, intimidation, bullying swell up and you will have to accommodate them not because you do not have the guts to fight back, but like the prostitute in the King Solomon’s story you will rather give up the child than see it decimated. You are more than ready to fight back, to give fire for fire, but you painfully act outside of your nature so that things will move on. In the process, you stifle creativity, innovation, and you wonder, but am doing this for the overall good!

It is that moment of forced inertia, the frustration of acting outside yourself, the diplomacy that is credited to women, when they present this veneer and understate their abilities so peace can reign – that is the purgatory of success, that is the pain of success.
Margaret Olele is Chief Executive Officer,  American Business Council.

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Margaret Olele
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