Sunday, December 28, 2014

Simon, the Mbira Player (by Bruce Du Bourg)

Guest Post: Bruce Du Bourg

Bruce and I became family when he married my sister-in-law Katherine's sister. Scattered around the world, I haven't got to see him that much but do receive his annual update letter which he and Caroline send to friends and family. Their daughter is the proud owner of one of the most infectious smiles ever to have graced the planet. He is a happy guy and has an interesting perspective on things. We both ended up up going down the financial and business route in our studies, overlapping a little in one of the courses. Bruce's guest post looks into and out of that world.

Cheesy grins from Bruce (left) and my brother Dave


Simon, the Mbira Player 
by Bruce Du Bourg

A young man named Simon plays diligently on his mbira near the parking lot machine of an upmarket shopping centre in Northern Johannesburg. From what I can tell, he's quite skillful, as his fingers dance magically between the rigid wires to generate the musical notes that reverberate inside the belly of the instrument. To me, the only problem is that an mbira is about as musical as the sound made by a rusty tin cup that is being rattle against the bars of a cold prison cell gate. Somehow, Simon does not share the same opinion as me as he watches the numerous other shoppers that scuttle guiltily passed Simon's decidedly empty hat. Every day, Simon works tirelessly at trying to become the best mbira player in the district, while the only members of the public that seem to care are those that drop money into his hat as a donation of pity. While Simon may be incredibly talented, I fear that he may have chosen to play most of his golf from under the lip of fairway bunkers, setting up with leafy trees between him and the target, while his only club is an old fashioned gooseneck putter that his uncle used to chase away snakes.

My point is that Simon is not likely to make any meaningful connection with his audience and may be better advised to use his straw hat to protect him from the sun's dangerous UV rays than to use it to invite falling money. If you chat to Simon, however, he will tell you that playing the mbira brings him endless joy. In addition, the art has been in his family for generations and he believes that it is his responsibility to carry the mantle to bring pride and honour to his name. A noble cause, indeed.

Surprisingly, this little discussion has very little to do with the plight of mbira players in the greater Johannesburg area, as concerning as the situation may be. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the less obvious parallels between Simon's situation and the challenges that we all face every day. Every time that we act or decide to act, we face the question that Simon should probably be contemplating. We can choose to do the thing that helps us to meet society's usually status and financially driven objectives or we can choose to do the thing that gives us meaning and contributes more fully to our life's overall purpose.

Although this sounds a little bit lofty and theoretical, I'd like to bring it down to a very practical scenario. To illustrate this thought, consider that when you are sitting at your coffee-stained desk in you not-quite-big-enough middle storey office, you have a choice. You can either go downstairs to offer a hug and a friendly ear to Philip, the debtors clerk, who is going through some difficult marital trouble, or you can ride up to the tenth floor to tell Marvin, the executive, how smashing he looks in his new mustard-coloured, fashion-defying, jaundice-alluding suit. I can imagine Marvin throwing back his daily dose of blood pressure medication as he thanks you for your compliment. Marvin doesn't identify the sickly falseness in your voice. To Marvin, your tone is very similar to that used by Trevor in accounts and Benson in human resources, when they stopped by earlier in the day to stake their claim on the next promotion. If your purpose in life is to make a difference to people's lives, do you really want to be the guy chatting to Marvin, just to add some superficial padding to your bank account, while Philip goes through the most difficult time of his life?

This is possibly not the rag to riches mbira story that your heart has been longing for, but Simon may have taught us the lesson that is in exact opposition with our original intuition. Our business school logic may have been running a number of possible multi-disciplinary alternatives to augment Simon's business model. He should first understand the needs of his customer before determining a strategy to address those needs. Maybe he should borrow his cousin Henry's violin and learn to produce a sound that is more pleasing to his prospective upmarket clientele. Better yet, he needs to realise that the music industry is only lucrative for the chosen few. Perhaps he should rather look into making beaded farmyard animals or setting up a suburban barbershop to help people like Marvin take away some the the attention from their borderline offensive fashion sense.

Or, maybe Simon needs to follow a less drastic approach by simply continuing on his current trajectory. In many years' time, when Simon looks back on his life, he will know that he has stayed true to his purpose, and that his actions have remained authentic to his dreams and values. If you're reading this from the comfort of the mustard-coloured suit that Marvin lobbed in your direction, perhaps you need to reflect on whether the chafing that you're feeling is only as a result of your suit's synthetic fibres. This little blog serves merely as a checkpoint to your overall goals in life. No judgement has been passed here, only a suggestion around the disappointment that a life centred around something superficial like money may hold in the final analysis. You may realise that boosting your bank balance does very little to enrich you, in light of the person that you really want to be. Make your own choices with the fullest level of awareness, but please don't look back at yourself in twenty years' time wondering why on earth you ever started playing the violin.


In writing a blog about several topics in which I admit to being a complete beginner, I am going to have to rely heavily on the people I am writing for who cumulatively know most of what I am likely to learn already. I would love it if some of you found the time to write a guest post on the subject of happiness or learning. The framework I use for thinking about these things is what I call the '5 + 2 points' which includes proper (1) exercise, (2) breathing, (3) diet, (4) relaxation, (5) positive thinking & meditation, (+1) relationships, (+2) flow. Naturally if you would like to write about something that you think I have missed, I would love to include that too. If you are up to doing something more practical, it would be awesome if you did a 100 hour project and I am happy to do the writing based on our chats if that is how you roll. Email me at 

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