LIVE BY DESIGN | On being your own praise singer: Self-affirmations can help us live by design

If you were to throw a party for a significant milestone right now, what do you imagine would be said about you? And in 10 years’ time, what, if anything, would you want them to be able to say differently? And how would you begin to reshape your life to make that possible? Living by design requires intentionality, with those intentions best supported through self-affirmations.


In America, people don’t shy away from affirming themselves and showcasing their strengths. On Monday 3 July, a day before America’s Independence Day, my relatives and I visited America’s One World Observatory. It was the first visit to the country for at least seven members of our travelling party.

One World Observatory is a symbol of America’s modern history, as it is built on the site of the Twin Towers that were destroyed during the September 11th attacks. It remains one of the world’s tallest buildings and symbolises America’s ability to rise again and overcome even the worst of times. It’s inspiring to many, regardless of any cynicism about what America stands for.

This visit sparked a conversation among the nine of us, where we shared what we believed were our notable achievements as individuals and as South Africans. A retired policeman proudly shared that he had never received a complaint during his 39-year career and had never accepted a bribe. A former principal in our group celebrated years of dedicated public service, which resulted in producing successful bankers, doctors, and other significant individuals in society. I, on the other hand, took pride in making this family trip a reality after years of planning and convincing everyone to save. The room filled with joy and confidence as each person shared their small and big accomplishments.

This is exactly what Helena Dolny and I teach as the first module in our four-module online course called “Live by Design”. We invite participants to embark on an exercise that explores what a praise singer would say about themselves at a celebratory event. The intention of this solo reflection activity is to enhance our lives and reveal what matters most to us in terms of how we choose to live and our goals.

Sometimes, during significant ritual occasions or on our milestone birthdays, someone will give a speech about us. There may even be multiple speeches given by friends, siblings, or spouses. In ancient North Africa, some rulers had their accomplishments engraved on stone tablets, which can be seen in museums in Athens.

In Southern Africa, there is the tradition of the Imbongi, a Nguni praise poet, who performs ceremonial activities at important events. They are often a member of the welcoming party and referred to as “the poet who walks before any great chief”.

We encourage participants to become their own praise singers, recognising and acknowledging their own value. This is because we firmly believe that self-affirmation is essential for our well-being, and it directly impacts our ability to address the challenges of life and death.

Furthermore, we urge participants to share their self-affirmations aloud in the presence of others as witnesses. We encourage them to begin by embracing and celebrating their ancestral heritage, as our past and history shape our understanding of ourselves and what contributes to our greatness.

During the speech, individuals should describe who they are and the core values that guide them in all aspects of life, including family, professional, and spiritual domains. They should also reflect on their accomplishments, both big and small, and consider what they would like to be remembered for.

Additionally, if they were granted more years in life, they should envision what they would want their future praise singer to say about them in 10 years’ time. This can include sharing illuminating anecdotes, meaningful quotes, personal stories, favourite dishes, or endearing habits that define their unique character.

On 4 July, fireworks were seen even in Harlem, despite the recent ruling that will make it more difficult for black students to access Ivy League universities.

As I reflect on how Americans affirm themselves, I can’t help but wonder how this exercise would look for us and our country. There is something powerful about the role of affirmation when life sends you blows, and society puts you down. As South Africans, we have achieved extraordinary things in our immediate past, and we should be able to do the same in our immediate future, even with challenges currently facing us as individuals and as a nation.

We cannot deny the challenges we face. However, we must also refrain from solely amplifying our weaknesses. Doing so will hinder our belief in our ability to improve and achieve greatness.

It is important for individuals to recognise and acknowledge their own value and accomplishments. This exercise of being your own praise singer can be beneficial for personal growth and self-esteem. By reflecting on one’s heritage, values, and achievements, individuals can gain a better understanding of themselves and their capabilities.

As for the country, this exercise can also be useful in fostering a sense of national pride and unity. By highlighting positive aspects of the country’s history, culture, and achievements, individuals can develop a stronger connection to their nation and a belief in its potential for greatness. This exercise can help inspire individuals to work towards collective goals and contribute to the betterment of the country as a whole.

However, it is essential to strike a balance between self-affirmation and humility. While it is important to recognise and celebrate individual and national achievements, it is equally important to remain open to growth and improvement. By acknowledging areas for development and setting goals for the future, individuals and the country can continue to strive for greatness while maintaining a sense of humility and self-reflection.

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