What an individual named Phakiso Tsotetsi teaches us about self-confidence and worldly experiences

He is a suave, well-mannered gentleman, with the confidence to match. Tall, bold-headed, easy going, kind and spots a smile that renders him likable, and happens to be as every bit of eloquent as he is confident. Oh, pedantic and a master at manning business operations, too.

An amazing storyteller, he often talks about access to opportunities. More specifically, the benefits travel provides to expand one’s mind and worldview.

“Look, how I look at it is this way,” he once began his theory to me and two of my friends one evening in Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg. “If you cannot travel to neighbouring countries like Swaziland or Lesotho and survive there on your own, how are you going to make it in places further afield in the world?”

“Because personally, I can survive anywhere you put me. I can eventually get a sense of a place, connect with people and thrive.”

South African entrepreneur, Phakiso Tsotetsi, was talking of something extremely important, but is often, unfortunately, overlooked. At this point we were peering over the table listening attentively.

Phaks, as he is affectionately known, grew up between Soweto and Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Although we did not delve much into his upbringing, he strikes me as a person who developed in a space that reinforced his importance. And gave him a sense of entitlement — to get out in the world and get what’s his.

And that point (growing up in a certain environment with certain opportunities greatly impacts one’s chances of success in the real world) is precisely the crux of this conversation. Please consider this term and etch it to your memory: Cultural Legacy.

Author Malcolm Gladwell talks about it in-depth in his groundbreaking book, Outliers (The Story of Success). He argues that success rarely occurs as a result of hard work and intelligence only. It happens when people like Bill Gates have unlimited access to computers (back when they were still very scarce) at a young age and great private school education and connections their environments afford them.

That argument is a profound one and has unbelievable consequences, if we heed the nudge, on how we think and subsequently frame the conversation around success.

The reason I thought of Phakiso while reading Gladwell’s book was because of how he is. And then it hit me: Phaks is the way he is partly because of the influence of his upbringing, education, family dynamics while growing up and most notably, the five years he spent living in the United Kingdom after completing a college qualification in South Africa.

It’s worth noting that because of those factors, he does better in life compared to, say, friends he grew up with in the chaotic city neighbourhood such as Hillbrow. I recall him confidently strutting around theadvance while on the phone to people in different parts of the country. The way he did that common task was nothing short of breathtaking!

I remember instances where someone told him about a person who needed to be called about a business proposition, for instance. He always whipped out his phone and requested their number so as to talk to them immediately. He had no aversion to cold-calling people. And on the phone, as in person, he is congenial and utterly well-spoken.

I want you to think about the benefits and opportunities Phakiso creates for himself because, first, he is self-assured and second, posseses the savvy which allows him to talk to people, persuade, negotiate and get things he needs from the world. And then think about a person who also grew up with Phakiso in the same neighbourhood and pretty much grew up under the same set of circumstances. But they struggle with, say, walking into a room and talking to people in a way that moves them. Of course, the first thing we are likely to attribute that to is that they have different personalities and inclinations. Well, that’s a fair point.

However, what stuck out for me was that Phakiso has had his self-esteem reinforced either by a loving family, or as a result of the environment he inhabited. That other kids were possibly taught that they ought to respect (and thus not challenge) authority by all means while he was taught to speak his mind. That he is special and deserves to treat himself and be treated in a way which resembles that.

His international stint no doubt sparked a hunger and curiosity about the world around him. It was essential in shaping the enterprising individual he’s become. I remember him mentioning traveling as one of his top priorities. He vividly painted that picture in my head by saying something along the lines of (I will paraphrase due to my poor recollection about this point), “I feel as if there is something I still need to see in the world that I haven’t. I want to drive all the way through from Germany to Spain, there’s a breathtaking road there I would love to experience.”

His voice sounded lively when he spoke about that. It gave away the yearning he has to fully experience life and the world. And so he paused, and with a smile on his face, continued to say, “the world is too big and beautiful man! So, that’s what I would do if I got a million bucks — travel.”

The point about cultural legacy is, it is a powerful factor in determining how one’s life pans out. Growing up in a Korean culture where you are taught to always obey and never go against authority is a dangerous legacy when you are a co-pilot and your superior officer makes an error while you are high above the clouds on your way to Dubai in a 747 Boeing aircraft. For a simple reason: you are likely to be polite to the senior officer instead of commanding the situation, and thus saving the plane from crashing into the sea. You won’t blurt out, “Sir, you are exhausted and are messing up! We’ve missed the landing, so if you don’t pull up the plane in the next five minutes, we will all die!”

Back to the night he was telling my friends and I about the importance of traveling and the need to deal with fear better than we are currently doing. “I think it also has to do a lot with having a certain perspective and worldview!” — the analogy he painted next was legendary! — “Imagine yourself going to Soweto and you’ve never been there before. You’re generally confident about yourself. And when you get there, you get told about a certain thug who is very violent, let’s call him ‘Bhubesi’. Basically, this fellow is the kingpin in the whole township! What would your response be?”

We smiled, looked at each other and before we could mumble our responses, he said, “Often, you are going to get scared and back down. But that is crazy to me, it doesn’t make sense! I mean, you’ve not even seen this guy before. You are forming a story about him in your head, about what might happen to you and believing it based on what you have been told by other people.”

Almost at the same time, we breathed a sigh of “Aha!” A lightbulb switched on and we realised that in addition to being pressed down by negative cultural legacies, that’s another thing which holds most of us back from achieving the things we want — anxiety. A feeling which Seth Godin brilliantly describes as the act of experiencing failure in advance.