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My Notes on Grief

She has visited me twice in my dreams. Rather, I have heard her in my dreams twice. Both times, she was calling my name and me, always obstinate me, refusing to answer. The first time, everything was dark, so I could not see her. On the second occasion, however, we were attending a family event and, for some reason, I would rather eat some bland plate of ugali and sukuma wiki than look at or respond to her. Both times, I would wake up in a tangle of emotions, needing her, and wondering what message, if any, she was trying to pass to me. If only the dead could talk. My mom is dead. She’s been dead since May 2nd this year. And only now, about four months later, have I found the courage to talk about her demise. I love my mom. My mom is dead. Gone forever, and I can only grasp at her in my dreams. 

2nd May started as any ordinary day. I woke up at 5 am to work on a client’s proposal that was due. I had spoken to mom the previous night, but she was very weak, so the phone call was brief. Very brief. At around 10 am, I text my sister, asking what was happening and if they were going to see a doctor. She confirmed this to be the case, and I returned to my work: rent was due on 5th. Later, my nephew, who was spending his school holidays at my place, would ask me to measure his height. Quick to play the ‘cool’ uncle, we made a mark on the wall, which would act as a benchmark for later measurements.

My sister calls me at about 2 pm. “Allan, I am worried.” I was warming food for my nephew at that moment, and I thought that everything was going to be okay. My sister is ever the alarmist, and she must be overreacting as always. At about 2.20 pm, she calls back. “Allan. Allan. She is gone.” I am stunned. Gone? How? What do you mean? I call her back. The phone goes unanswered. My sister must be mistaken. She must be mistaken, right? I call one of my aunts who had accompanied them to the hospital. I hear wailing in the background. That’s when I knew that, indeed, my sister was not mistaken. I collapse on the kitchen floor. Speechless. Emotionless. Later, it strikes me. Oh shit! My nephew is still waiting for his food. 

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Writing Life in Pencil

“Why are pencils equipped with erasers if not to correct mistakes?”

Nellie L. McClung

Today, I turn a year older. From the bowels of Kisii, where I was born, to my present station, it has been quite the journey. One of many ups and bucketloads of downs: I have herded cows in Nyakach, walked barefoot taking those cows to drink their mid-day dose of water in River Sondu Miriu, nearly drowned twice, passed and failed exams, started and killed “businesses,” fell in and out of love, read a ton of books, drank liters of alcohol, met both wonderful and horrendous people, walked hundreds of kilometers to nowhere, joined an amazing community, and impacted people both positively and negatively along the way. I have laughed, cried, gazed emptily into nothingness for hours, and opened up to people – wholly, partially, or not at all. It has been quite the journey, and if I were to die today, I will take with me the words of Hunter S. Thomson: 

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in a broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”  

But I do not intend to die today, tomorrow, or the day after. Instead, I hope to live to a ripe old age, and to retire in an expansive farm, where I can continue to take my many walks to nowhere, and surrounded by antiques, a very small group of people, and animals. After all, once a herder, always a herder. I am still very far from achieving that vision, being the penniless student I am presently and owing to the many mistakes I have made so far. However, Pascal told us, “Invert, always invert,” and I have not come across a more versatile and applicable quote. Want to lead a long life? Look for what will kill you, and try to eliminate them. Want to make good decisions? Look at what constitutes a bad decision, and avoid it (Munger said: “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”). So, this year, I want to correct the mistakes I made, forgive myself for making them, and work towards my grand goal more aggressively. I wish the same for you.  

Happy New Year friends, and remember to always invert. 

On the Goodness of Envy

– Image from Psychology Today

We have all heard it before: Run your race. Essentially, what the phrase means is we should take life at our pace and not compare ourselves to others. Sound advice, right? Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And true, mindlessly comparing yourself to others is one of the surest ways of ridding yourself of any satisfaction in life. And life can be cruel, I know. We graduate from college at the same time and some of our classmates get the coveted high paying jobs. They start dropping investment talk and become ‘thought leaders’ on Twitter. Meanwhile, there you are, barely making a living, scouring LinkedIn for jobs, and sending multiple applications that, as always, end up in rejections. 

“We human beings are social beings. We come into the world as the result of others’ actions. We survive here in dependence on others. Whether we like it or not, there is hardly a moment of our lives when we do not benefit from others’ activities. For this reason, it is hardly surprising that most of our happiness arises in the context of our relationships with others.

Dalai Lama XIV

We are social animals and one of the inescapable accompaniments to this characteristic is social comparison. Most of the structures that define how we relate with others, and how we perceive ourselves, are on a relative scale, with benchmark scores derived from how those around us fare. For example, you cannot know whether you are a good writer unless there is someone who writes better or worse than you. When we compare poorly to the competition, our self-esteem declines. 

In such instances, it is easy to become the ostrich and bury our heads in the sand and convince ourselves that we should run our race. I am not calling for a blanket reversal on the use of the phrase. I am well cognizant of inequality and the role it plays in our lives. Some of us are the victims of flawed governing and social systems; most of us have experienced a string of (seemingly) unending bad luck. Some people win, while others lose, the ovarian lottery: some are born at the right time, place, and to the right parents, leading us to occupy different positions in the health, prettiness, and smarts spectrum. These are facts of life, which have always been and will always be there. Seneca once counseled that a wise person is one who is “Content with his lot, whatever it be, without wishing for what he has not …” Hence, ‘run your race’ is an appropriate approach to navigate life, right?

“It is not greed that drives the world, but envy.”

Warren Buffett

The problem with this sentiment is that, in some cases, it does not address the root of the issue. Akin to sweeping a problem under the rug, advising one to ‘avoid comparing your progress to those of others’ is a subtle push to escape the accompanying feelings of envy. Envy has been getting a bad rap throughout history. Cain in the Bible; Seth, Osiris’ brother; and Shakespeare’s Shylock. So bad is envy’s reputation that it is one of the Eight (or Seven, depending on what you read) Deadly Sins. However, as with a lot of things in nature, envy is not necessarily a bad emotion and one can harness it to improve themselves. 

In Mental Model: Bias from Envy and Jealousy, we are introduced to two types of envy: the malicious and good type. The bad type of envy arises when one feels that they have been treated unfairly in life in comparison to their peers. How come so-and-so, despite their apparent intellectual shortcomings, got the job and not me? The resulting feelings of resentment and anger are what translate into the unfortunate actions that have seen envy be classified as a Deadly Sin. The easiest way to get yourself out of this situation, and hence the merit of arguments such as ‘run your race,’ is to focus on your life journey and avoid comparing yourself to others completely. My problem with this advice is then: how do you know that the bubble you build around yourself will result in the best outcome? As Feynman once said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” What happens when, after running your race, you end up on the wrong wall after climbing your compass-less ladder? 

The second type of envy, the good one, arises from the belief that one’s disadvantage is their fault. For example, I am absolutely envious of my classmates who are excellent computer programmers. Those little geniuses who take one look at a problem and effortlessly know how to solve it, whereas I would have to consult books and technical documentation to address the same issue. However, I also realize that they deserve the skills they have after spending countless hours practicing their craft while I, on the other hand, was also busy chasing other interests. I can decide to harvest this envy and use it as a seed to improve my programming skills, assuming that it is what I now want to do.     

“Envy is pain at the good fortune of others. We envy those who are near us in time, place, age or reputation.”

Aristotle

At the root of envy is the realization that we are lacking in some qualities that are apparent in our peers but that we wish we also portrayed. In such cases, rather than fall back on the ‘run your race’ phrase, acknowledge your feeling for what it is and look at it objectively. Does the other party deserve their win and do you wish to be like them? If yes, put in the work to improve and learn. If the other party does not deserve the win, recognize that the world is an unfair place and luck smiles upon us differently. It is in this instance that ‘run your race’ is sound advice because the cause of the person’s win is not within your control. However, do not run your race in a bubble that does not measure up to reality. 

My Notes on Grief – II

Nothing prepares you for the death of a person close to you. Death is so fucking rude. One day you are making plans with some person in mind, the next they are gone. I am not religious, and I have spent countless hours musing over life, especially its importance and meaninglessness. I do not believe in a heaven nor that we possess souls that will one day come back to life, in one way or another. However, the finality of death changes all that. Is this all there is to life? It is one thing to talk with your friends about how we are nothing and only a very very small part of this world but it is entirely another to have to accept those statements when faced with the harsh reality that a once living, talking, and breathing person who meant the world to you is now but just a lifeless body on a metal table. 

I saw her feet first. There was no mistaking them when I walked into Star Mortuary in Kisumu on 6th May. Mom had these slightly dark toenails, which had only gotten darker as her body fought a case of thrombosis that morphed into various conditions. I used to watch her trim those toenails using one of the many surgical blades she had lying around the house, little did I know that it is her feet by which I will first recognize her. I stood rooted to one place, looking at her from a distance. When one of my aunts pulled down the white sheet they had placed over her to reveal her face, I felt all strength leave me. There she was, seemingly asleep, peacefully, I hoped? I studied her face, knowing that this was one of the last few days I had with her. “I am sorry,” I whispered. Then I walked out of the room, fighting back the tears that were now flowing freely down my brother’s and sister’s faces. 

Mom and I had a strange bond. Sure, we had our fights – a lot of them! One of them stemmed from her belief, at one time, that I was dating the wrong girl. Her mistake? I loved that girl. I was young and in love, and no way was I going to listen to her. And if you know me, you know how hard I fight for something in which I believe. Long story short, though, the relationship never worked, and I (or we?) walked with my (our?) piece of character development. In my class eight, mom and I had a huge row after I transferred from a well-performing private school to a public one after my parents moved to Nyakach from Rongo. Thankfully, that year, I passed my KCPE exams, and all was forgiven and forgotten after I won a spot at Maseno School and a scholarship from KENGEN. My restlessness would rear its head again years later, when I shifted from the University of Nairobi to Nyakach to rear chickens. Long story short (again), the business failed spectacularly. 

But mom loved me, even though I am not the easiest person to love. I recall when in high school I fell ill with typhoid and was admitted at Chulaimbo Hospital. The next day, my mom, herself a nurse, came and took me away to treat me from home. I was sitting on a hospital bench, alone and miserable, looking at the hospital gate and longing for home. I can still see her walking up the slight hill, my Dame in shining armor. She was my greatest cheerleader who never gave up on me, even when I provided her with every reason to do so. After UoN and my little escapade that also saw me start a food delivery business in Kisumu (which also failed, again), she would press my dad to enroll me into JKUAT’s Computer Science program. “In ema ibiro konya,” she used to tell me. I remember the first amount of money I gave her. I was from a construction site in Sori  and rushing to Kisumu to oversee the construction of another building. I dropped by Thurdibuoro Secondary School where she was the school nurse, and gave her a 1,000 shillings note. Mom did that thing we do of crossing hands to greet someone we respect, only this time, she did so to receive the money. She spat on it slightly and I have never heard so many thank you’s. 

I am sorry I could not do more while you were alive. But I had plans, mom. I had plans.      

Windows

This post is about windows. No, Caleb, not Microsoft’s Windows OS. Nor even the X Window System (X11). Interestingly, I found out about X11 when my laptop’s OS – I am running Fedora – refused to launch this tiny program – aptly called SmallVideoConverter – because my graphical user interface did not support X11. Instead, this post is inspired by Madame Bovary’s type of windows. First, who is Madame Bovary? According to Wikipedia (yeah, yeah, don’t come at me about how untrustworthy Wikipedia is. For today, it will have to suffice),

Madame Bovary...yada yada… originally published as Madame Bovary: Provincial Manners…more yada yada….is the debut novel of French writer Gustave Flaubert, published in 1856. The eponymous character lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of provincial life.

So, what was the connection between Madame Bovary and windows?  Sparknotes categorizes windows in the novel as a motif (Google, friends), and explains the connection as thus:

Windows are frequently associated with Emma [Madame Bovary’s character]. We often see her looking out of them, or we glimpse her through them from the street as she waves goodbye to Charles or Leon. For Emma, these windows represent the possibility of escape. A shutter bangs open to announce her engagement, and she contemplates jumping out the attic window to commit suicide. But Emma never manages to really escape. She stays inside the window, looking out at the world and imagining a freedom that she never can obtain. Windows also serve to take Emma back to the past.  

Yes, windows. Much like this one:

Walter White watching Flynn

Or this one

I took the last picture while staring outside my bedroom window. I was fascinated by that scene because of how we can select to view different aspects of it. You could have decided to focus on the dirt on my window, or those houses in the background, or those lush green grasses. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how we can all be viewing the same image but end up with different interpretations? Thus, just as Madame Bovary, we looked out at the world in my picture and derived various meanings from what is present before us. The big question would be, why did you select to focus on what you were looking at? My hypothesis is that you did so because of your present worldview. In the paper, “Worldview, The Concept of,” Abi-Hashem (2017) defines the concept as: 

Worldview is the outlook one has about life. It is a paradigm by which the individual or the group interprets reality and acts upon life. It is how we normally view and conceptualize the world…Basically, the term worldview is used in a broad sense to entail a collection of impressions, perceptions, and phenomena.

So, again, why did you select to focus on what you were looking at? If it was something negative or positive only, readjust your view. There is so much beauty and, at the same time, ugliness in that picture. The key, I think, is to find a balance between the two; to find the beauty within the pain and the pain within the beauty. This goes for everything in life, I believe. For instance, replace that window with your eyes, and you have an infinite window through which you view the world around you. What do you select to focus on? The beauty? The pain? How does your worldview inform your decisions? I can only ask the questions; only you can provide the answers. 

This source provides an interesting angle on why worldview matters. 

A Quote I am Thinking About

“Our minds are wonderful explanation machines, capable of making sense out of almost anything, capable of mounting explanations for all manner of phenomena, and generally incapable of accepting the idea of unpredictability.”

Nassim Taleb

Lessons from Water

Be like water making its way

Through cracks. Do not be assertive

But adjust to the object,

And you shall find a way around

Or through it. If nothing within

You stays rigid, outward things

Will disclose themselves. 

Empty your mind, be formless.

Shapeless, like water. If you put

Water into a cup, it becomes the cup.

You put water into a bottle, 

And it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, 

It becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it 

Can crash. Be water, my friend. 

 – Bruce Lee

In a parallel universe, I would have been an electrical engineer. I would have probably been an ok engineer, with a modest job, and a family of two children. I love the number two; it always strikes me as the perfect digit since everything exists in twos. Man – Woman; Day – Night; Life – Death. Up – Down; True – False. Well, almost everything, until one adds our love for complexity, and then, instead of the True – False dichotomy, you have half-truths, convenient truths, empirical truths. But I digress. Of course, I am not an electrical engineer, and neither will I be one. For a while, I also entertained the thought of being a nurse, and I even got admitted to a nursing school. My main motivator was my hate for how nurses in most hospitals in the country treat their patients. While some are compassionate and serve their patients well, a vast majority are ruthless, careless, and are in their jobs only for the monthly paycheck. The results of this attitude are devastating. Today, if the lack of affordable and accessible medical facilities doesn’t kill you during an emergency, you’ll probably die because the same team that is supposed to restore you to health will mishandle you. Thus, I wanted to be a nurse to contribute, in my small way, to improving the type of care that patients receive – from one that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of most of them and their families, to one that makes them maintain their dignity when they are in their most vulnerable state. But, again, I am not a nurse, and neither will I be one. 

Instead, today, I am studying Computer Science. Why? Because I figured it gives me the best chance to apply myself across the many fields in which I have an interest. Now, the advantage of being a lover of knowledge is that you develop interests across multiple fields. In Finance, I am always fascinated by how the stock market works, why it works for some, and why it doesn’t for a majority of others. And based on this interest I met John C. Bogle, the creator of index funds. Then I stumbled upon Benjamin Graham, and his famous student – Warren Buffet. Through Buffet, I met his sidekick, Charlie Munger, who introduced me to the art of multidisciplinary thinking, and I felt at home. Munger advocates for taking the core principles of each subject – Psychology, Engineering, Mathematics, History, etc – and tying them up together to form a mental toolkit that lowers one’s chances of making errors significantly. His key goal is not to be right, but to reduce the errors that we often make. And they are many! 

Based on this need to reduce errors, I stumbled upon Nasim Taleb, who advocates for optionality, which is akin to do not put your eggs in one basket. Instead, treat life as a barbell, with extreme risks on one side, benefits on the other, and operate in the middle of the two. In this way, one avoids being wiped out by both extremities, which ranges from over-optimism on the benefits side to black swan events – those risks people fail to recognize but that destroy them when they occur – on the other end of the barbell. Thus, from Taleb and Munger, I learned that our decision-making processes are hugely flawed and that, instead of seeking to be right as most of us do while weighing our options, we should, rather, try to not be wrong. Hence, the principle of inversion. As Munger put it, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.” And one way most of us will die is consuming poisonous foods, whose supply chains we cannot trace, and neither do we prepare them the right way. As a result, currently, one of the problems that is bothering me is thinking about ways that we can eat only appropriate foods and in the right portions. This brings me back to Computer Science, and together with a team, we are presently trying to figure out how we can utilize recommender systems to solve this problem. Since this is also a health-related issue, I feel content about solving it, as it will also enable me to reduce the number of people who pay a visit to our nurses. 

Overall, I often think about David Forster Wallace’s speech, “This is Water,” which begins as thus: 

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

 

According to Wallace, the gist of the story is that “the most obvious realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” To me, this simply means that a lot of us live rigid and bounded lives that inhibit our ability to view the world as it truly is. Hence, we believe in false ideas such as having one true career path and we hold onto unbendable beliefs and principles even in the face of disconfirming evidence. For that reason, I advocate for being supple, and to never let go of our childlike curiosity and playfulness as it is in this way that we can utilize our full spectrum of abilities, both known and unknown since discovery is a never-ending journey. 

Be water, my friend. 

 

A Quote I am Thinking About

“Always be prepared to think that experts are stupid. They often are.” — Jane Jacobs

Love

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.

Lao Tzu

I love the feeling of being in love. A question Tim Ferris asks interviewees in his book A Tribe of Mentors is: What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?, and for me, it is loving love itself. I silently cheer for people who have found it – I inwardly root for couples who hold hands confidently while out walking, or those who sit across each other at a restaurant and you see them looking into each other’s eyes and laugh at a shared secret joke. I feel all sorts of emotions watching a parent play with their child, as I know that parental love is the purest form of love I will ever witness. I will shed tears during an emotional scene in a movie (why is Disney remaking The Lion King, you emotionally manipulative monsters!). I still have a copy of The Titanic saved on my computer, alongside a playlist containing all the soundtracks used in it. And I love love songs, especially, the sad types. Mariah Carey’s “I’ll be There” and Shola Ama’s “You Might Need Somebody” are some of my favorite tunes. Recently, I got another addition to my collection. While reading Tim Ferris’s book, which records responses to a series of questions by a diverse group of individuals, one of the respondents, Susan Cain, recommended the song “Dance Me to the End of Love” by Leonard Cohen. I looked it up on YouTube, and was immediately hooked.

Framed as a love song, “Dance Me to the End of Love” is actually inspired by the Holocaust. However, what captured my interest is its cinematography, which included various elderly couples dancing together with a picture of their younger selves in the background. My romantic self was awakened immediately. I believe that there is no greater feeling in the world than falling in love with someone, growing old with them, and still having the desire to dance with them after such a long time. Finding such a person is hard, I know, but so is letting go once death robs you of them. Sixteen months after the death of his wife, Arline Greenbaum, Richard Feynman (more about him in the next post) wrote this moving letter that, coupled with the scenes in Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” reminded me of the beauty of love and stirred my soul deeply.

October 17, 1946

D’Arline,

I adore you, sweetheart.

I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.

It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.

But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.

When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.

I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.

Rich.

PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.

(Letter courtesy of Letters of Note)

A Quote I am thinking About

This year, I had the pleasure of meeting four beautiful souls – Lesley, Amina, Maureen, and Imani. As you graduate from university this week, I wish you all the very best as you, as well as other graduates, embark on another stage in your lives. A question Tim Ferris poses to his respondents in the book A Tribe of Mentors is: What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?

This response by Naval Ravikant (@naval on Twitter) stood out for me, and I hope it will help you in your path.

Advice: Follow your intellectual curiosity over whatever is “hot” right now. If your curiosity ever leads you to a place where society eventually wants to go, you’ll get paid extremely well.

Do everything you were going to do, but with less angst, less suffering, less emotion. Everything takes time.

Ignore: The news. Complainers, angry people, high-conflict people. Anyone trying to scare you about a danger that isn’t clear and present.

Don’t do things that you know are morally wrong. Not because someone is watching, but because you are. Self-esteem is just the reputation that you have with yourself. You’ll always know.

Ignore the unfairness – there is no fair. Play the hand that you’re dealt to the best of your ability. People are highly consistent, so you will eventually get what you deserve and so will they. In the end, everyone gets the same judgment: death.

Congratulations!!

Sojourner Truth – A Lesson on Resilience

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

– Maya Angelou – Still I Rise

I recently did a paper on American history, and the growth that the American people registered during the period between 1865 and 1945. Among the gains made during the time was women’s suffrage, which came to be when the US Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. This act crowned several years of struggle by women across the country who had fought for their right to vote and, in such a way, have a hand in determining the policies of the land and their future. Sadly, one of the women who championed for this right – but who did not live to see it see the light of day – was Sojourner Truth. Truth’s story is one of hardship – having been born a slave in deeply-racist America – and the fact that she rose from the ashes to earn her place in the nation’s history books is a significant feat in itself, and one from which we can draw inspiration centuries after her death.

Life is hard. In the song “He Still Loves Me,” Beyoncé alludes to this fact when she sings that:

I used to wake up some days

And wish I’d stayed asleep

Cause I went to bed on top of the world

Today the world’s on top of me.

Indeed, I have experienced such periods when I wish I could just lock myself indoors, switch off my phone and stay in bed the whole day without interacting with anyone else apart from my thoughts. Once every day, week, month, or year, life will throw such curveballs your way, and how you overcome them depends to a large extent on the support network you have around you – the people with whom you surround yourself – as well as your mental fortitude. In other words, your desire and determination to transcend the obstacles you face during such episodes. I cannot speak about the former – my lack of close associates upon whom I can call during such times disqualifies me – but I can attest to the power of the latter in helping me vanquish my doubts and gain the ability to face the day, and the next. Luckily, I have several other personalities from whom I can draw such strength – Charlie Munger calls them “the eminent dead” – and one of them is Sojourner Truth.

Born as Isabella Bomfree circa 1797, Truth is the true definition of how we can transcend our challenges as long as we do not give up on ourselves. As a slave in Dutch-speaking Ulster County in New York, her childhood was full of hardship – she was bought and sold four times, worked under harsh conditions full of hard labor and cruel punishments from her masters, and had her children taken from her and sold into slavery. However, in 1826, she ran away from her last owner –John Dumont- after he reneged on a promise to emancipate her. This event marked a significant turning point in her life. In particular, she moved to New York City in 1828 where she worked as a housekeeper in several households until 1843 when she renamed herself as Sojourner Truth and embarked on a journey to preach the truth. In 1850, she dictated her autobiography – The Narrative of Sojourner Truth- to Olive Gilbert, and she lived off the proceeds of the sale of the book, which also earned her national recognition and enabled her to meet other women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony. Subsequently, until old age intervened, Truth conducted several lecture tours in which she spoke on the subjects of women’s rights, universal suffrage and prison reform. During the American Civil War, she also helped recruit black troops for the Union Army, and, after the war, she became involved in helping freed slaves find jobs and even met and spoke with President Abraham Lincoln. Not a small list of accomplishments for a former slave who could neither read nor write, eh?

So, we all have our bad days, which can extend to weeks, months, or even years. I have been there, and I know that such times can take a drag on your soul. These are periods where you feel nothing will ever work out right for you, and then you start questioning yourself: your worth, decisions, and whether you are fit to live. But it gets better. I always believe that, sometimes, you have to hit rock-bottom before you can achieve any sustainable and long-term success. The key is to find a reason why we should do what we have to do to make it to the next day. For Sojourner Truth, it was to speak the truth. Similarly, ask yourself, what are you living for? And channel your energy toward accomplishing that singular goal (or goals) regardless of what life throws your way.

Also, never forget the depths from which you came. It is for this reason that I hold individuals such as Sojourner Truth in high regard. Despite all the hardships she faced, she kept her faith, overcame some of the challenges she faced, and used the resources she had at her disposal to try to make a change in the lives of people around her. Can the same be said about you? It is never too late to start creating our legacy.

A Quote I am Thinking About

To laugh often and much;

To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;

To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;

To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;

To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

Be The Truth – Oprah Winfrey

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The problem is everybody is meeting hysteria with more hysteria and then we’re all becoming hysterical and it’s getting worse.

Oprah Winfrey

I am a sucker for commencement addresses. Fortunately, it is graduation season in most colleges in the US, and I have several such speeches to whet my appetite, and that makes this my favorite part of the year. And I am spoilt for choice. For example, Sheryl Sandberg will be at MIT, Anne-Marie Slaughter at Washington University in St. Louis and Justin Trudeau at New York University. Already, Queen Latifah (Rutgers University), Tim Cook (Duke University), Chance the Rapper (Dillard University) and Michel Bloomberg (Rice University) have addressed graduates and dispensed their life lessons to the eager students. (If you are wondering who these people are, Google is your friend). Look them up and their speeches; I assure you that you won’t be disappointed. For me, however, the one that stands out so far is Oprah Winfrey’s talk at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California last Friday (May 11th). In my opinion, Oprah is the embodiment of how far grit can take person regardless of his or her background or present circumstances. Her speech covered several topics – from the ills of the internet and social media use to how to select your next pair of shoes. Without further ado (people still say that, right?), here are some of the key lessons I picked from the address. (For the full video, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnKu46WGajo )

  • On the internet and social media

Everything around us, including—and in particular the internet and social media—is now being used to erode trust in our institutions, interfere in our elections, and wreak havoc on our infrastructure. It hands advertisers a map to our deepest desires, it enables misinformation to run rampant, attention spans to run short and false stories from phony sites to run circles around major news outlets. We have literally walked into traffic while staring at our phones…So this is what I also know: This moment in time, this is your time to rise. It is. Even though you can’t go anywhere, you can’t stand in line at Starbucks, you can’t go to a party, you can’t go any place where anywhere you turn people are talking about how bad things are, how terrible it is. And this is what I know: The problem is everybody is meeting hysteria with more hysteria and then we’re all becoming hysterical and it’s getting worse. What I’ve learned all these years is that we’re not supposed to match it or even get locked into resisting or pushing against it. We’re supposed to see this moment in time for what it is. We’re supposed to see through it and then transcend it. That is how you overcome hysteria. And that is how you overcome the sniping at one another, the trolling, the mean-spirited partisanship on both sides of the aisle, the divisiveness, the injustices, and the out-and-out hatred. You use it. Use this moment to encourage you, to embolden you, and to literally push you into the rising of your life. And to borrow a phrase from my beloved mentor Maya Angelou: Just like moons and like suns, with the certainty of tides, just like hopes springing high, you will rise.

  • Be the truth

So your job now, let me tell you, is to take everything you’ve learned here and use what you learned to challenge the left, to challenge the right, and the center. When you see something, you say something, and you say it with the facts and the reporting to back it up. Here’s what you have to do: You make the choice everyday, every single day, to exemplify honesty because the truth, let me tell you something about the truth, the truth exonerates and it convicts. It disinfects and it galvanizes. The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption, our shield against greed and despair. The truth is our saving grace. And not only are you here, USC Annenberg, to tell it, to write it, to proclaim it, to speak it, but to be it. Be the truth.

  • The dangers of cynicism

Here and now I believe you have to declare war on one of our most dangerous enemies, and that is cynicism. Because when that little creature sinks its hooks into you, it’ll cloud your clarity, it’ll compromise your integrity, it’ll lower your standards, it’ll choke your empathy. And sooner or later, cynicism shatters your faith. When you hear yourself saying, “Ah, it doesn’t matter what one person says, oh well, so what, it doesn’t matter what I do, who cares?” When you hear yourself saying that, know that you’re on a collision course for our culture. And I understand how it’s so easy to become disillusioned, so tempting to allow apathy to set in, because anxiety is being broadcast on 157 channels, 24 hours a day, all night long. And everyone I know is feeling it. But these times, these times, are here to let us know that we need to take a stand for our right to have hope and we need to take a stand with every ounce of wit and courage we can muster.

  • What do you stand for?

The question is: What are you willing to stand for? That question is going to follow you throughout your life. And here’s how you answer it. You put your honor where your mouth is. When you give your word, keep it. Show up. Do the work. Get your hands dirty. And then you’ll begin to draw strength from the understanding that history is still being written. You’re writing it every day. The wheel’s still in spin. And what you do or what you don’t do will be a part of it. You build a legacy not from one thing but from everything. I remember when I just opened my school in 2007, I came back and I had the great joy of sitting at Maya Angelou’s table. She hadn’t been able to attend the opening in South Africa. And I said to her, “Oh Maya, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy, that’s going to be my greatest legacy.” I remember she was standing at the counter making biscuits, and she turned, she put the dough down, and she looked at me and she said, “You have no idea what your legacy will be.” I said, “Excuse me? I just opened this school and these girls, and it’s going to be … ” And she said, “You have no idea what your legacy will be, because your legacy is every life you touch. Every life you touch.” That changed me.

  • Pick a problem, then do something about it

And it’s true, you can’t personally stop anybody from walking into a school with an assault rifle, nor can you singlehandedly ensure that the rights that your mothers and grandmothers fought so hard for will be preserved for the daughters you may someday have. And it’ll take more than you alone to pull more than 40 million Americans out of poverty, but who will you be if you don’t care enough to try? And what mountains could we move, I think, what gridlock could we eradicate if we were to join forces and work together in service of something greater than ourselves? You know my deepest satisfactions and my biggest rewards have come from exactly that. Pick a problem, any problem, and do something about it. Because to somebody who’s hurting, something is everything.

  • Hold political leaders accountable

So, I hesitate to say this, because the rumors from my last big speech have finally died down, but here it is. Vote. Vote. Vote. Pay attention to what the people who claim to represent you are doing and saying in your name and on your behalf. They represent you and if they’ve not done right by you or if their policies are at odds with your core beliefs, then you have a responsibility to send them packing. If they go low, thank you Michelle Obama, if they go low, we go to the polls. People died for that right, they died for that right. I think about it every time I vote. So don’t let their sacrifices be in vain.

  • Some more random advice

Eat a good breakfast. It really pays off. Pay your bills on time. Recycle. Make your bed. Aim high. Say thank you to people and actually really mean it. Ask for help when you need it, and put your phone away at the dinner table. Just sit on it, really. And know that what you tweet and post and Instagram today might be asked about at a job interview tomorrow, or 20 years from tomorrow. Be nice to little kids, be nice to your elders, be nice to animals, and know that it’s better to be interested than interesting. Invest in a quality mattress. I’m telling you, your back will thank you later. And don’t cheap out on your shoes. And if you’re fighting with somebody you really love, for god’s sakes find your way back to them because life is short, even on our longest days. And another thing, another thing you already definitely know that definitely bears repeating, don’t ever confuse what is legal with what is moral because they are entirely different animals. You see, in a court of law, there are loopholes and technicalities and bargains to be struck, but in life, you’re either principled or you’re not. So do the right thing, especially when nobody’s looking. And while I’m at it, do not equate money and fame with accomplishment and character, because I can assure you based on the thousands of people I’ve interviewed, one does not automatically follow the other.

Something else, something else. You need to know this. Your job is not always going to fulfill you. There will be some days that you just might be bored. Other days, you may not feel like going to work at all. Go anyway, and remember that your job is not who you are, it’s just what you are doing on the way to who you will become. Every remedial chore, every boss who takes credit for your ideas—that is going to happen—look for the lessons, because the lessons are always there. And the number one lesson I could offer you where your work is concerned is this: Become so skilled, so vigilant, so flat-out fantastic at what you do that your talent cannot be dismissed.

And finally, this: This will save you. Stop comparing yourself to other people. You’re only on this planet to be you, not someone else’s imitation of you… Your life journey is about learning to become more of who you are and fulfilling the highest, truest expression of yourself as a human being. That’s why you’re here. You will do that through your work and your art, through your relationships and love. And to quote Albert Einstein, “Education is what remains after we forget what we’re taught.” You’ve learned a lot here at USC. And when all that you’ve been taught begins to fade into the fabric of your life, I hope that what remains is your ability to analyze, to make distinctions, to be creative, and to wander down that road less traveled whenever you have the opportunity. And I hope that when you go, you go all in, and that your education helps you to walk that road with an open, discerning mind. Discernment is what we’re missing. And a kind heart…This degree you’re about to get is a privilege. It’s a privilege. And that privilege obligates you to use what you’ve learned to lend a hand to somebody who doesn’t get to be here. Somebody who’s never had a ceremony like the one you’re having this morning.

  • Finally,

So I hold you in the light, and I wish you curiosity and confidence. And I wish you ethics and enlightenment. I wish you guts. Every great decision I’ve ever made I trusted my gut. And goodness. I wish you purpose and the passion that goes along with that purpose. And here’s what I really hope: I hope that every one of you contributes to the conversation of our culture and our time. And to some genuine communication, which means, you have to connect to people exactly where they are; not where you are, but where they are. And I hope you shake things up. And when the time comes to bet on yourself, I hope you double down. Bet on yourself.

Need I say more?

A Quote I am Thinking About

Intelligent individuals learn from everything and everyone; average people, from their experiences. The stupid already have all the answers.

  • Socrates

 

Social Media Etiquette

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A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring: there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope

Social media, particularly Twitter (for me), is one of the most beneficial inventions of our lifetime. At the touch of a button, we can reconnect with long-lost friends, disseminate information, and keep abreast of events happening thousands of miles away as well as in our immediate neighborhoods. Besides, they give us platforms through which we can air our views, debate with others, and share our frustrations regarding the many challenges we face in life. But we can also choose to hide behind the anonymity of our screens to sling mud at others, tarnish their reputations, and shame those who hold differing opinions to ours. In a society where the number of likes, followers, and retweets is a critical currency, people can go to great lengths to outdo each other in exchange for these forms of social recognition.

With great power comes great responsibility

However, of late, I have come to see the futility of these forms of exchanges. For example, our economy is yet to recover fully from the crippling effects of a prolonged and acrimonious election period that saw several people lose their lives and properties destroyed as rival camps clashed over the presidency in Kenya, and why their preferred candidate was the most suitable person to hold the position. Overnight, everyone became IT experts, constitutional lawyers, or soothsayers in the quest to sound the most knowledgeable regarding the outcome of the process. Our TV stations were crowded with “pundits” racing to outdo each other in the search for relevance. Alexander Pope said that a little learning is dangerous, and these freshly-minted professionals spewed sometimes biased statistics and information to show why their viewpoints are more valid than those of their colleagues. Now, foretelling the future with certainty is largely an effort in futility (remember the butterfly effect? For fun, listen to the conversations of people placing a sports bet before and after a game), and only a fool would engage in such exercise. As Warren Buffett said, Forecasts may tell you a great deal about the forecaster; they tell you nothing about the future. These ‘experts’ were quick to shift goalposts to reconfigure to the events of the day, collect speaking fees, and earn more followers. Contrarily, most of us do not get that privilege. The internet does not forget, so goes the saying, and a picture or text you upload today can haunt you several years ahead.

I wish we could use social media platforms more productively than we currently do. I have learned of numerous opportunities through the platforms. I avoid watching television, nor do I read most print newspapers, but I am more informed about current and historical events than most individuals I know. Through the sites, I have met wonderful people doing wonderful things, and I get to be a part of their worlds albeit remotely. On the other hand, some of the conversations I see on my timeline are closer to cyber-bullying episodes than constructive ones. These needless ridicules, harsh criticisms, and the unearthing of people’s histories are mostly geared toward belittling and discrediting their points of view. However, it seems all fun and nothing more than just banter until you are the center of attention and all the abuses come flowing fast in your direction.

How do we make social media sites safer grounds for each of us? To be honest, I do not know; there are more than 2.46 billion social media users globally, and I cannot claim to speak for all of them. However, what I know is that after all the exuberance passes, and your phone stops beeping from the constant notifications of likes and retweets, most of us sit back and contemplate whether the post eliciting such response was worth it in the end. And therein lies the paradox; most of us consider the second-order effects of our actions after the fact (possibly because of hindsight bias?). But it does not have to be that way. In an article on Forbes magazine, Ilya Pozin poses 12 questions that people should ask themselves before hitting that ‘post’ button. Namely:

  1. Should I target a specific audience with this message?
  2. Will anyone really care about this content besides me?
  3. Will I offend anyone with this content? If so, who? Does it matter?
  4. Is this appropriate for a social portal, or would it best be communicated another way?
  5. How many times have I already posted something today? (More than three can be excessive.)
  6. Did I spell check?
  7. Will I be okay with absolutely anyone seeing this?
  8. Is this post too vague? Will everyone understand what I’m saying?
  9. Am I using this as an emotional dumping ground? If so, why? Is a different outlet better for these purposes?
  10. Am I using too many abbreviations in this post and starting to sound like a teenager?
  11. Is this reactive communication or is it well thought-out?
  12. Is this really something I want to share, or is it just me venting?

In sum, we should check and recheck our content, as well as the second- and higher-order effects of our posts before publishing them. We’ll save ourselves numerous blushes in the process.

A Quote I am Thinking About

Watch your thoughts, for they will become actions. Watch your actions, for they’ll become…habits. Watch your habits for they will forge your character. Watch your character, for it will make your destiny.

-Margaret Thatcher