Graduation Speech – Don’t Let Your Life Happen By Accident

This is a speech I gave at the Boston Media House Graduation Ceremony on June 26th, 2018. I am a little apprehensive about sharing this online but have had multiple requests to, so here goes. It is a long read.

Giving this speech is a little awkward and strange for me because, to be honest, I still feel like my life is a work-in-progress and that I am still early in my journey. I must say that this is very different feeling for me today than it was six years ago, when I turned 40, and felt like time was running out because I was nowhere near where I wanted to be.

One of the things that starts to happen when you feel a little more mortal is reflection and I have had opportunity to do quite a bit of that as I have navigated life – perhaps it is an occupational hazard of being a writer. Being part of life and feeling separate and observing at the same time.

Today, I would like to share some of the things that I have learned over the course of what I hope is only the first half of my life. I hope that you will allow me the space to provide a little context, with a quick look back at some of the moments.

In the words of the Bold & The Beautiful: “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

The most difficult question I ever get asked is one that I suspect is easier for many of my peers, which is the question “What do you do?”. I blame my father for my confusion.

It all began when I was about 11/12 years old. My father left a life in academia where he lectured Economics, Political Science, African Studies and the like to start a management consulting business in Maseru, Lesotho. Originally from Ghana, trained in Germany where he met my mother and I was born, my father moved us to Lesotho after my mother died in a car accident in Uganda. I started working for him on holidays running errands and eventually became his assistant, doing research as well as typing up the reports and proposals the company generated.

I went to a British accredited school which had teachers and students from all over the world – at some stage, there were probably 50 different nationalities in the school. I was a bit of a bookworm but was also relatively decent at most sports although I excelled in sprinting. I did all the things teenagers did, listened to music, went to parties, got up to relatively harmless mischief. I did alright in school. Never top of class, never bottom. My teachers always said I could do better but I mostly passed which I thought was good enough.

When I turned 15, my father sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My response “I want to do what you do?” He then asked, “what do I do?” My 15-year old mind said, “you help other businesses become better.” On that day, my degree was planned down to the subjects. There was no option of not going to university.

I won’t bore you with the details and will try to fly through the next part. I continued to work in the family businesses which eventually included a monthly magazine, an insurance brokerage, a shop selling hair products and salon equipment, and a clothing shop.

After high school, I went to Germany for a year as a Rotary Exchange Student and when I came back, I spent 8 months working full time with my father till I went to university at the then University of Natal in Durban where I did a B.Comm majoring in Economics, Marketing and Business Administration. In between all of this, I was a sprinter and was trying to qualify to run in the 1996 Olympics for Lesotho. My sprinter career was cut short by an injury to my leg. I burst a blood vessel playing basketball and was hours away from amputation but they were able to salvage it by removing a muscle.

Moving back home after university, we started an IT company with my father, working with specialised software and identification and biometric technologies. We still had the management consulting company as well as the hair products shop. We then also started a weekly newspaper. After a couple of years, due to political problems in Lesotho at the time, I left Maseru to move to Joburg. In the time that I have been in Joburg, I have:

  1. Worked for a cousin’s furniture company
  2. Started an IT consulting company
  3. Worked with a fashion designer on his business, including directing fashion shows and hosting parties
  4. Worked as a booker at an actor’s agency
  5. Worked for an event company in the youth development space
  6. Started a company to develop the arts, including publishing
  7. Performed as a poet, organised shows, booked poets and published my own collections
  8. Worked as information officer for a small independent music label
  9. Worked as project manager and communications consultant for a public franchising project at the SA Post Office
  10. Worked for a youth development company
  11. Worked for a television production company as a researcher, content producer and producer
  12. Was founding editor of a magazine called Blaque
  13. Was editor of Destiny Man magazine
  14. Was editor of Afropolitan magazine, and
  15. I have a show on Kaya FM.

There is a whole bunch of stuff that has gone on in between all of this and continues to go on and I continue to learn many lessons, fortunately not all the hard way. These are by no means cast in stone but here it goes:

Don't Let Your Life Happen By Accident

Pic by Claire Jackson-Bernado

LIVE CONSCIOUSLY

There’s a quote by Robert Kiyosaki, author of the book Rich Dad, Poor Dad. The quote is “your future is created by what you do today, not tomorrow.” I have always tried to focus on what I want out of life and let that be the lens through which I view the world, make decisions, and so on.

Some years back, I read the book “The 4-Hour Work Week” by Tim Ferriss which introduced me to the concept of ‘lifestyle design.’ It totally changed the way I look at life and how I live my life. I am still nowhere near where I want to be but I have learned that living deliberately and consciously will take you a long way. Don’t let your life happen by accident.

 

BE NATURALLY CURIOUS

When I was growing up, to find anything out, you had to go through books. I was fortunate in that I grew up in a home with lots of books and went to a school that had a decent library and there was something called Encyclopaedia Britannica, a series of books, in alphabetical order, with hundreds of thousands of entries on any topic you could think about – at the time. We even had Chappies bubble gum with Did You Know facts on the inside of the wrappers.

You are growing up in the Information Age. Knowledge is everywhere and easily accessible. Find things out. I am a big believer in knowing things for the sake of knowing them. I didn’t realise how useful being naturally curious about stuff was until my first week at Destiny Man magazine. As editor of a business and lifestyle magazine of that nature, a significant part of my work was being able to engage with an array of stories and knowing enough about them to be able to determine whether they would be relevant for the reader and in line with the positioning of the publication. Because I have worked across so many different industries and because I am always reading and watching stories on a wide range of topics, I was able to navigate the magazine and its content so much easier.

With my talk show on Kaya FM, my role is to explore topics that I think are relevant and interesting and I get to talk to people from so many different fields.  Being naturally curious has enabled me to explore everything from watchmaking, renewable energies, afrofuturism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to cyberbullying, the future of retail, poetry, paternity leave, photography,  gamification, art, and music production, to name a few.

 

SCRATCH BENEATH THE SURFACE

A symptom of this age of information with the internet and social media and devices constantly in our hands is that there is so much noise which can become overwhelming. These platforms have given us voice and ensured that that voice can carry beyond our immediate circles. It has created a situation where we cannot, and should not, take anything at face value.

You have to scratch beneath the surface, especially in the areas that you guys are in. You have to look at what isn’t being said because, often, that says more than what is being said. You have to be discerning. You have to go beyond what is being said and look at who is doing the saying. You have to be able to tap into the nuances.

Someone that I admired growing up was Malcolm X and he once said, in a speech, that, I am paraphrasing, “don’t believe everything I say just because I am Malcolm X. Listen, absorb, process and decide whether it makes sense to you.”

 

DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE!

The legendary rap group Public Enemy have a song with this title that they released in 1988 and I believe it is even more relevant today that it has ever been.

Don’t believe the hype in the world. Don’t believe your own hype. That’s a sure-fire way to get caught up in the trivial, the unnecessary, the distracting. Don’t get caught up in the numbers. Number of followers. Number of likes. Number of albums sold. Number of products bought. Just don’t believe the hype.

 

FIND YOUR LANE

We’re living in the time of what trend spotter and futurist Dion Chang termed the ‘slashie’. I like to think of myself as an original slash but essentially a slashie is someone who is an accountant slash deejay slash entrepreneur slash photographer, etc. The specialist is still necessary but less prominent, to a certain extent. Amidst this, you have to find and decide what your lane is. What is the thread that binds everything you do? Find that and focus on it. It will make the journey easier.

 

BE YOU

This is a natural progression from finding your lane. Never be ashamed and feel the need to make excuses for who you are. My father always said, “the easiest thing to be is yourself. Living is the process of finding who YOU is.

There is the expression, “If you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything.” And, in my opinion, the something you should stand for is ‘you’ within context of yourself, your family, your community, society, country and continent. In magazine, I considered my responsibility as being to the readers who are my community. And, I was involved in the magazines I worked with because what was of importance to that community was also of importance to me.

 

HOLD YOURSELF TO A HIGH STANDARD

I may sound like the old guy by saying this but there seems to be a growing comfort with mediocrity, especially in the media. We seem to have made peace with regurgitating thoughtless thought, with creating news stories on the basis of tweets, with talking about what everyone else is talking about. Don’t. Work smart but also work hard. Be uncomfortable sometimes. Stretch yourself. Lay a strong foundation for your career and for your life.

Follow the rabbit down the rabbit hole, don’t stand on the edge and simply say the rabbit went down the hole. How deep does the hole go? How many rabbits are there? Is the hole in a park or the side of the road? What’s the neighbourhood like? Who lives in that neighbourhood? What are their hopes and dreams? How do they feel about the rabbits? Who has great recipes for rabbit stew?

It is up to you to decide whether you are going to do the ordinary or go deeper.

 

BE TEACHABLE

Alvin Toffler, author of the book Future Shock once said, ““The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  This world is changing exponentially. What you have learned at school is merely a foundation.

Allow yourself to learn. Allow yourself the space to recognise that, sometimes, what you have learned isn’t relevant any more.

How I ended up at the post office, other than for my sins, was because there was a project being run by someone who I had grown up around in Maseru. There was a need for a communications specialist and I joined the team to handle that aspect of the project. But, three days into the project, the project manager pulled out and I was then tasked with fulfilling that role as well. Fortunately, I had project management textbooks on my shelf and, for the first month, I would pour over those books to figure out reporting processes, structures and the like. Now, I can’t tell you whether I was good at it but I was kept on as project manager for the 10 months that the project ran, which must say something.

Being teachable and, by extension, able to learn, unlearn and relearn has held me on good stead over the years. The one day you find yourself saying “but that is how we have always done it”, move on.

 

THE PIE ISN’T ONE SIZE

This is a big one for me. As we have become more and more competitive, we have created a society that values the individual over the collective. We compete brutally from a position of lack or limitation. But, the pie isn’t one size and we aren’t competing for a slice. There is place for us all. It may sound utopian but I truly believe this. We can bake more pies so each of us can have their own pie. And, in fact, some of us may not actually want pie.

I am a sucker for a great love song. Think about all the love songs that have been written and will be written. We enjoy them all. It isn’t a case of the one song is so perfect that we don’t want to listen to anything else.

Think of media platforms – magazines, radio stations, video platforms, websites, etc. They all exist alongside each other. Some come, some go, but we are always spoilt for choice.

 

LIFE IS ABOUT THE CHOICES WE MAKE

When I went to university, my father gave me a book called Choices. This was something that he constantly harped on. We always have a choice. Not making a choice is a choice in itself. Not being engaged is a choice. Sometimes we make choices that are bad, for us. How we respond to even those is a choice. Be conscious of this in whatever you do. Left or right. Up or down. Yes or no. There may be occasions when you feel you have no choice – you do. And even that is a choice. To feel that way.

 

DON’T STAND STILL

Keep it moving. Don’t become complacent. Don’t settle. This is something that I have allowed myself to do, at times, and have suffered for it. There have been times when I have heeded my own advice and it has birthed beautiful experiences. There have been times when I have heeded my own advice and I have ended up in not so favourable situations. I can comfortably say that I have often learned more from the supposedly negative experiences than I have from the positive ones. I learn what I don’t want from these. And I am the better for it.

 

LET YOUR WORK AND YOUR LIFE SPEAK FOR ITSELF

Now some may disagree with me on this, especially in a world where self-promotion has become the order of the day but I truly believe that you should let your work and your life speak for itself. It continues to be something that I grapple with because, to be honest, in some instances, certain opportunities have passed me by because I didn’t ‘market myself’ as aggressively as others did themselves.

There is this focus on the human being as a brand. I am still undecided as to how I feel about this. My line is that I am a human being, being human. That’s where my attention is. Doing the work, living a life I can be proud of and interacting with the world on that basis. Sometimes, I find that people spend so much time on the ‘brand’ side of things that they forget that a brand has a promise, a brand has values, a brand stands for something. If you want to define my brand, I would rather it be on my work and how I live my life than my announcing to the world that I am a brand. And so, I repeat, let your work and your life speak for itself. Everything else, on top of that, is a bonus.

 

DECIDE WHAT SUCCESS LOOKS LIKE/WHAT YOUR LEGACY IS?

When I first moved to Joburg, I started an IT consulting company with a friend. Entrepreneurship is a difficult space; not everyone is built for it. My offices were in Midrand and I eventually moved in with an aunt of mine because I couldn’t afford to cover rent for my own place. She used to give me R20 for petrol to get to my offices meanwhile my cousin, who was a television presenter was making a lot of money for being on air a couple of times a week. I had other younger friends, who I had, to a certain extent, brought up who were rolling in the cash. It forced me to redefine what success meant, and means, to me. And it isn’t solely based on how much money I have or the things I own.

Decide on what success looks like for you. Decide on what you want to achieve and what your legacy will be.

In a weird way, being asked to stand before you today is tied to what legacy means to me. And what it means is that my little piece of this reality be better for my having been in it, however big or small that piece of this earth is.

My father passed away just under two years ago. It was something that I always feared happening even though I knew it was inevitable. In the days after he passed, I received phone calls and messages from around the world from people I didn’t know. These were people whose lives he had touched in some way. I had a group of young women who he had put through school come to me to thank me and my siblings for sharing him. I received a DM on Instagram from a young man who my father had insisted apply for a prestigious fellowship at an Ivy League university in America. My father actually made him sit down and fill in the forms in front of him and made sure they were sent off. About three months after my father passed, the young man was accepted and, because my father was no longer there for him to thank, he DMed me.

That is how I see legacy. And that is how I see success in a life lived.

I wish all of you only the best as you shift into the next chapter of your lives. It won’t always be easy. It won’t always go the way that you want but you are living in a time when history is being made daily. All that I ask is that you do your bit while building your best life.

I would like to leave you with the words of Yasiin Bey, when he was still Mos Def, from his song Umi Says. These are words I try to live by daily.

I ain’t no perfect man, I’m trying to do, the best that I can, With what it is I have

Tomorrow may never come, Life is not promised

Tomorrow may never appear, You better hold this very moment very close to you

Very close to you, So close to you

Your moment in history is right now!

Don’t be afraid, to let it shine

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