It is sometimes said that the only sure way to avoid disappointment is to temper one’s expectations. While this approach falls just short of outright pessimism, it is intuitive to reason that those who possess modest expectations are more easily satisfied than those who look upon every occasion with grandiose presumptions. However, when extraordinary lifetime experiences come around, such as our Maymester in Cape Town, this way of thinking becomes unnecessary. In my Pre-Trip Expectations blog, I wrote that I expected my worldview to be expanded by our trip to South Africa. Without knowing specifics, I was confident that our journey in Cape Town would add a new perspective to my ever-changing worldview. Despite beginning with this lofty expectation, I am thrilled to say that our trip delivered.
I could, and maybe should, write a book on all of our adventures and experiences in Cape Town. Among the educational lectures, new acquaintances, vibrant nightlife, humorous moments, and lessons learned (both good and bad), the real challenge would be narrowing it down to a single genre. However, for time and simplicity’s sake, I find myself focusing on two main takeaways I feel contributed to expanding my worldview.
Throughout our travels in Cape Town, I found myself thinking that so much of daily life in South Africa was “backwards.” From driving on the left side of the road using a steering wheel positioned on the right side of the car to witnessing the sun set (rather than rise) over the Atlantic, many things in Cape Town seemed to juxtapose life in the United States. The weather added to this phenomenon. We left a warm, humid, early South Carolina summer behind and were greeted by red and brown leaves falling off of the trees, temperatures that called for a jacket, and the coming of the South African winter. In May! Of course, this “backwardness” to us was simply normal life to the native South Africans. This really emphasized an essential lesson: the relativity of the term “normal.” Understanding that “normal” is a relative standard that carries a different meaning for individuals, cultures, and countries is a fundamental aspect one’s worldview must possess for one to be able appreciate and accept other cultures and places. One’s perception of normalcy is derived from his or her cultural and geographic circumstances, among other factors. An example occurred as we visited local students and conversed over beers and a delectable Morituri pizza, each joking that the other’s daily life was “backwards.” Bheki, a native South African remarked, “I never understand why it snows in Christmas movies. Everyone knows Christmas is in the summertime.” A simple joke illustrating a much larger principle: the relativity of the term normal. I believe any worldview is greatly enhanced by embracing this concept. Additionally, taking the time to understand what is “normal” in an unfamiliar country will add greater meaning and substance to foreign travel.
I acquired another life lesson through our study of entrepreneurship in South Africa, specifically the product and business plan presentations of the students from the University of Cape Town and the students from a local township who were also attending UCT’s graduate entrepreneurship program. Between the two groups, I witnessed a fascinating contrast in the origin and styles of their business ideas. The students from the University of Cape Town seemingly presented ideas consisting of “luxury goods.” For example, one student designed a slim, stylish solar-powered charger for Apple’s iPad. Another girl created a fashionable, designer-looking rain jacket that folds up in a very compact, easy-to-carry pack when not in use. While these products are creative and definitely could be headed for success, they are hardly the type of things a person could not survive without. On the other hand, the students from the township seemed to draw their inspiration from a desire to add value to the lives of their customers. One student started a company to supply graduation caps to schools in the Cape Town area with plans to expand to other parts of South Africa. In the United States, a graduation cap is nothing more than a decorative addition for a short ceremony. However, as this student explained her business, you could hear the passion in her voice. She explained that in South Africa, the graduation cap held a greater symbolic significance. As a symbol of their achievement, each graduate would keep these personalized graduation caps for life. The intrinsic value of this simple product, when combined with the fact that not every South African gets the opportunity to graduate from school, has made for a successful start to the early stages of her entrepreneurial endeavor.
I certainly thought an interesting dynamic was at play here, one that arose from the differing backgrounds and circumstances of the students. The students from the University of Cape Town, largely regarded as the best university on the African continent, likely led a different lifestyle than their contemporaries who grew up in a township. As a result, when searching for entrepreneurial inspiration, they gravitated toward developing non-necessity products with a higher-end targeted demographic. Conversely, such thinking likely did not cross the minds of the students hailing from the township. Instead, these students found inspiration from simple products, such as a graduation cap, to provide a sense of accomplishment for their clients. Another student from the township plans to start a business franchising swimming pools. This business was not intended for creating lavish backyard oases but rather with the goal of increasing the safety of children by providing swimming lessons and reducing the number of people swimming in unsafe waters.
Through these observations, I gained a greater understanding of the role that a person’s circumstances can play on their business thinking. These students, although part of the same program, exhibited vastly different thinking through the presentation of their product ideas. As I move forward with my interest in international business and entrepreneurship, I believe I will view this as an extremely valuable addition to my worldview. As a result of this experience, I will be sure to make a strong effort to appreciate and understand the backgrounds and circumstances of the people I encounter in order to comprehend their motivations and their way of thinking. I am positive that my worldview-expanding lessons from our Cape Town Maymester will serve me well both in my business career as well as the rest of my life in this increasingly globalized world.