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Courage Is Contagious (And How To Deal With Schmutz)


He had our attention.

The chap on the stage had just spent 10 minutes graphically expanding on the concept of “Schmutz”. It’s a Hebrew word for mud, a filthy or soiling substance. And he was showing us a succession of struggling adventurers. A biker, an overland truck driver, a backpacker. Stuck in the mud somewhere. Filthy, dirty, and with no clear prospect of getting out any time soon. On a dirt road, in a ditch, windows so dirty you can’t see through them, clothes so dirty that you might as well throw them away. You get the picture.


Now if all he did was show us a bunch of muddy situations, that would be ok. But he was leaning heavily into the metaphor. How this is what it’s like to be South African. To have a government you don’t trust, a job you hate, a body that fails you, a routine that bores you. How you come back from holiday with the greatest of intentions. This year will be different! This year is the change! This year I’ll make it happen. But before you know it, you’re back in that deep-grimy-dirty-filthy schmutz.

Yep. About 10 minutes in, with a 100+ crowd ready to give up on life and throw themselves off the dock, he stops. Smiles. And says: “But I’m not here to depress you.”

Man, he got a good laugh for that. And admittedly, from there on out, with humour and kindness and his experience shares, Ronen Aires gave us some tools to dig ourselves out of our personal Schmutz.


His talk was depressing. But it also reminded all of us that it’s up to us. There’s enough Schmutz out there, but we can choose to wallow in it. The fact that we might have a daily battle of digging ourselves out of the hole is real, but other speakers like quadriplegic Viktor Vermeulen hammered home that truth: He’s not happy about being disabled. Every day is a new struggle. But he chooses to fight the fight, to make his life meaningful, to have an impact. Ronen, and Viktor, and many of the other speakers at the Ignite conference face a daily battle to charge through the Schmutz. In fact, in different ways, we all do.

It takes courage. Courage to be the doer, not the moaner, to let life happen and not let it happen to you. Courage is what makes South Africans so resilient, courage is what makes people stay and figure things out, courage is what drives entrepreneurs and do-gooders and change makers and world-beating athletes and scientists and explorers and pioneers. And that courage is inspiring. And that courage is contagious.

So here’s the question: Who do you surround yourself with? People who like to assign responsibility, or people who like to take responsibility? People who moan about the dirty windshield, or people who get out of the car and clean it? People who see Schmutz everywhere, or people who hardly even notice it, even when they are knee-deep in it?

Who are the five people in your life you spend the most time with? And are they cleaning the windshield, or are they sitting in the car waiting for someone else to do it?


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