On June 14, 2013 I was invited to speak to the graduating class of the Aga Khan Academy Nairobi. I felt greatly honored by the invitation but was worried about what I would say. The unremarkable rambling of the guest speakers at my three graduations inspired me to be more thoughtful about my remarks to these young men and women.
I shared three thoughts with, which I think would be relevant to all Kenyans, as we struggle to emerge from the primordial discord of ethnic division into a great and inclusive society.
The first thought was about greatness. And I don’t mean greatness in the narrow self-idolatry, self-serving, self-promoting way. I mean greatness in service; always putting others’ needs before our own. As Robert F. Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events”.
The scale of need in our society is great and daunting. But equally compelling is the abundance of our capacity for compassion, goodness and kindness. You must not be persuaded by cynicism and apathy, the belief that nothing can be done to heal the sick, alleviate hunger and poverty and make music to soothe broken souls.
Greatness comes not from the scale of your position or education or wealth. Greatness comes from sacrifice, and citizenship; a dogged commitment to give back, a stubborn determination to look not only after your own but to reach out in the service of others.
St. Mathew wrote, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it”. But I say to you, class of 2013, fear not the path of greatness for the lack of people traveling on it.
But most of all, I hope the eternal words of the great English poet and preacher, John Donne, will ring true in your lives “Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Greatness comes through involvement in mankind.
The second thought was about marching to the beat of your own drum. In the age of the “wisdom of the crowds”, march to the beat of your own drum; not in the self-centered big ego kind of way; although a self-assured swagger helps with getting a date.
Follow the enchantment of your dream, and learn to be yourself. It is not as easy as I make it sound. But it is how the big thinkers, entrepreneurs, army generals and inventors were able to make their dreams come true. You must learn to follow your heart. Following your heart will liberate you to enjoy more freedom and fulfillment.
Steve Jobs said to the class of 2005 at Stanford, “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition”.
The third thought was about perseverance. Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel gathered 600 children. Then he made them a deal; they could eat one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and get two marshmallows. He followed these kids 15 years later. It turns out that the ability to hold out was correlated with greater success and self-control later in life.
That ability to delay gratification will keep you focused on achieving your goal, ignoring tempting distractions. You must endure and persist and keep going in the toughest of time. There will be many false starts and setbacks. You will stumble, and you will fall. But always fall forward.
American inventor Thomas Edison, known for 1,000 patents failed 9,999 times before he perfected the light bulb. Michael Jordan is remembered for his six championships, not his nearly 15,000 missed shots. If you find yourself going through life with too few failures, it means only one thing; you have set your sights too low. So worry, be very afraid when you do not fail.
But you must always remember that education does not take place only in stuffy classrooms and musty libraries, it happens everywhere. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”