Listening to the Heart - Reflections of a Young Man™

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Listening to the Heart

When I dropped out of JKUAT peacefully on August '09, I decided to re-apply to top American colleges for the third time. I just couldn't put aside my dream of studying in the United States, the most successful nation in history and the land of most of my heroes.

But unlike when I applied to American colleges in '06 in my days at Starehe Institute, this time in '09 I wasn't psyched up in submitting my applications. I dozed while revising for the SAT exam. It was like my brain was insisting on applying but my heart was refusing.

And because the top American colleges stated in their colourful brochures that they admitted students of exceptional zeal and energy, little wonder that I was again rejected by all the colleges I applied for admission. See?

That was however not the last time I decided to pursue something I wasn't psyched up for. I did it again when I vied for a political seat in the '13 Kenya's General Elections. Okay, let me narrate briefly how it went.

At first, I intended to vie for a senatorial seat which was way too high an ambition that some of my friends derided me about it. I eventually scaled down my ambition to running for a county representative seat, the lowest elective post in Kenya.

That evening I informed my circle of friends that I had scaled down on my political ambition, I felt so happy and greatly relieved that I thought I would clinch the seat as easily as the way a monkey climbs an iroko tree. Or the way a tilapia fish swims in Lake Victoria.

But alas! I failed to summon the mojo and charisma to wake up early everyday to go campaign and solicit for votes during the electioneering period. Even on the election day, I didn't go to vote because my self-esteem was too low to withstand seeing my name on the ballot as a political candidate. In short, my political ambition was a disaster.

And what have I ended up learning from those failures? That I should learn to listen to my heart by ignoring what it hates and pursuing what it loves even when I don't know where the path may lead.

These days, when I plan to do something like meeting someone the following day and I wake up effortlessly feeling psyched up, then I know I am about to do the right thing. But if I wake up with difficulty feeling like someone who has just been told he has HIV, then I know am about to do the wrong thing.


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Part 2: Top-notch Plagiarism

Despite the poor quality of this photo, let me reassure you that it wasn't captured with a pin-hole camera. By the way, do you recall that pin-hole camera from your high-school Physics classes?

In the photo above is me giving a speech early in 2012 to the students of Starehe Boys' Centre, my Alma Mater. Below is a text version of the speech. Well, I didn't manage to read out the whole of it because the then Director of Starehe Boys' asked me to be brief. That notwithstanding, I request you to read the speech as I "wrote" it in full after which I will tell you a funny twist to the story:
Good evening my fellow brothers,

I feel privileged to address such a talented and bright lot of students as you. And I am really happy to hear this school is still doing well. I left Starehe in 2007. Today, I decided to come back and give you speech that will make a difference in your lives.

Giving a speech is really a hard thing. During my Starehe years, we were given numerous assembly hall talks. To be frank, I hardly remember the speakers and what they said. All I know is, if they were brief, I must have asked God to bless them.

Well, I know you are given lots of advice here because I have seen them on notice-boards. So I guess none of you wants to here those embroidered cliches any more. Rather than spend this precious moment re-narrating those pieces of advice - as exciting as they may be - I want to talk to you about the things that matter in life. Countries change, technologies change, leaders change, but human nature and human challenge don't really change.

So to give you something to remember 20 years from now, I did a little research.[1] A few months ago, I started reading autobiographies and biographies of great people in the long history of the world to find out their secret to success. As I read, I asked the writer a question that went like, "Tell me the most important thing you've learnt about life, yourself and people?" I want to pass along some of the best ones. Some of you may agree with. Some of you may think are crazy.

Number one is -
be absolutely determined to enjoy what you do.

I have not read of anybody who succeeded at something he or she hated. A newspaper reporter interviewed one of President John F. Kennedy's advisors. When the reporter asked him the best part of his job with Kennedy was, he said: "The best part was every minute of every day. I mean it. I loved to go to work every day because I was doing exactly that I wanted to do ... where I wanted to be ... working with who I wanted to be with."

Same with Kennedy.

Point number two - and almost everyone I read said it in one way or another:
Don't be afraid to fail.

Christopher Columbus left Spain to find India. He failed. But he found America. Abraham Lincoln lost five elections before he won the Presidency. Steve Jobs was fired by Apple Inc. Then he founded another company that was eventually bought by Apple Inc. (Steve Jobs understood another great truth: Don't get mad. Get even.)[2]

I am not advising you to go out and fail. But when you fail at something - and you probably will - learn from it. As the old saying goes, "The gifts are burdens. The burdens are gift." Let a setback be a set-up for a comeback.

That brings me to another piece of good advice:
Never give up on anybody. After all, a prominent politician pointed out that the only true and unredeemable criminal class in Kenya is the Parliament.[3]

When you students come back for high-school reunion parties 20 years from now, the success stories from your classmates will amaze you. Don't be surprised if the guy who hardly talks in class becomes a government spokesman some day; or if the shy guy who hardly strikes a conversation with girls during school functions invites you for his wedding and the bride turns out to be a remarkably beautiful and sophisticated lady; or if the guy who drops Physics in Form 3 comes up with ground-breaking ideas in Nuclear and Atomic Physics!

Keep in touch with your family, relatives and friends wherever you will be in life. I can tell you from personal experience that when you face the toughest times in life, you have to be able to get back to your real friends and re-discover your fundamentals. That's the fourth point.

I am honoured to have my parents alive today. Because when I talk about successful people - people who know a lot - they're on the list. My Dad is a self-educated free-lance accountant. And for over 20 years, I have observed him commute from my home-town to Nairobi in the blistering heat of January and in the terrible cold of July. My Mum is a shopkeeper. They both have secondary school education. And now as they approach their 30th year together, they don't have a lot of money. They're not written up in local dailies. And Dan Ndambuki has never interviewed them on Churchill Live. But that doesn't diminish the importance of their lives. They have raised us, five boys, well. They have overcome their problems. And they love each other. They have taught us to work hard and care deeply. To suspect people on the make but still respect those who just can't make it. In the words of one great musician, "They didn't know nothing about a silver spoon. But they know a lot about the golden rule." Likewise, appreciate what other people have done for you.

trust your instincts. Your instincts come from your fundamentals. So develop good ones and depend on them. In one of his last songs, John Lennon wrote that, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." And sometimes, your instincts are all you've to tell that you're moving in the right direction when everyone else is telling you that you're going crazy.

Sometimes your instincts will tell you to break the rules. Last Christmas, I read in an old
Economist magazine of a small New York City advertising firm that landed the account for Nike shoes and sportswear.[4] And they developed an ad campaign that everybody in the advertising industry predicted would be a total disaster because they broke all the rules.

They produced a series of billboard and magazine ads with people wearing Nike products. But the people didn't look like the glamorous and sophisticated sorts who lounge around. They were runners - dirty, sweaty, exhausted - finishing a race and looking like they were about to throw up. And the word Nike appeared on the ad - not in huge letters at the top - but in tiny, almost unreadable letters at the bottom. And the ad failed miserably - right? Wrong! It boosted Nike sales by 25% and helped make the firm one of the fastest growing, most successful advertising agencies in the world. That happened because those people trusted their instincts.

But there is more to it:
trust your instincts and never give up on yourself. That's the sixth point. When you make a commitment to never give up on yourself, you come to understand the last bit of secret to greatness I want to leave you with. And it's simply that in your own life, and in the state of our country, only one person - you - can make a profound and lasting difference.

It's easy to diminish our own importance. Scientists tell us that in terms of size, our significance is infinitesimal. If a map of the universe that we know of would be 1000km long and 1000km wide, our galaxy would take up a space equivalent of a small exercise book. Our solar system would be a molecule on that exercise book. And the Earth would be a speck on the molecule. Astronauts tell us that as they observe the Earth from outer space, they don't think of it as one gigantic planet. Instead they see it as one vulnerable ship, riding through a cold and dangerous universe as the lone outpost of humanity.

We are the stewards of human progress in this planet. Human progress is a chain, and every generation forges a little piece of it. You've heard the old expression that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. My challenge to you today is to do what you can in your own lives to strengthen your link and thereby hand down a stronger chain to the next generation. Take to heart the magnificent and powerful words of John Wesley: "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can."

That's what President John F. Kennedy had in mind when he told Americans that from then on, every generation will have the capacity to make theirs the best in the history of the world - or the last. As Dr. Griffin used to tell us, ""To those whom much has been given, much is expected."[5]

Now the greatest unfinished tasks are being passed into our hands. And our obligation is to carry on from those who have gone before us. Truly: "If it's to be ... it is up to you."

If justice is finally to be gained for the oppressed, it will be because our generation gives us people like Martin Luther King - who faced guns and police dogs because they believed that injustice
anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

It will be because our generation gives us people like Lech Walesa who stood before God and the world to insist on basic human rights for Polish workers and farmers; Cory Aquino who with a yellow dress, tenacity and right brought down a mighty and corrupt regime in the Philippines.

If the hungry are to be fed, it will be because our generation gives the world people as committed as Harry Chapin who gave the last years of his short life, not to the riches he could gain for himself as a singer but to raising millions of dollars to help feed the hungry.

If our children are to have clean air, green trees and safe water, it will be because our generation gives the world more people like Lois Gibson who risked her life to expose destruction of our natural resources.

In short, when our billion shillings debt is finally paid, when rural Kenya is finally saved, when tribal politics end,[6] it will be because our generation and those who come after us take to heart what Robert Kennedy told students just our age in South Africa about 40 years ago. He said: "Each time a human being stands up for an idea ... or acts to improve the lot of others ... or strikes our against injustice ... he or she sends out a tiny ripple of hope. In crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a mighty current which can sweep down the most terrible walls of oppression and injustice."

I submit that we do not represent Kenya's last generation, but Kenya's best generation.[7] We will not find all the answers because Kenya is more of a seeker than a finder - ever seeking its way through storms and dreams.

And as we seek our way for ourselves and Kenya, we will have the tools we need as evidenced in the new constitution approved by Kenyans in August 2010.[8] All the tools we need to overcome election violence, terrible natural disasters and great economic depressions:
  • the values of a just society
  • the strength of revolutionary democracy
  • the power of a free economy
  • the muscle of a skilled work-force
  • the talents of an educated people
But that's not enough. We need the vision of restless people. As the Book of Proverbs tells us, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Our vision for ourselves and our country should be as John Steinback described it: "I see us ... not in the setting sun of a dark night of despair ahead. I see us in the crimson light of a rising sun, fresh from the burning, creative hand of God. I see great days ahead - great days made possible by men of will and vision."

We are those men of will and vision. So let's go back to our studies and work with renewed vigour. Thank you very much for listening to me.
Natulenge Juu!Ť
Have you enjoyed reading that speech? I think you have. And you are now probably feeling rejuvenated as I did when I first shared it with my friends who were equally inspired like did Stephen Okoth, a buddy of mine dating from our high school years at Starehe and who is currently an Electrical & Electronics engineer.

But guess what? The original author of that speech was United States Congressman Gerry Sikorski who delivered it as a commencement address to the '86 graduating class of Breckenridge High School in Minnesota. I just plagiarized the speech to make it look original, so I ended up telling some fallacies which I have displayed in green above. Let me correct them in the table below:

[1] So to give you something to remember 20 years from now, I did a little research.I didn't do any research. As I have said, I just plagiarized the speech from a graduation speech by Gerry Sikorski.
[2] Steve Jobs was fired by Apple Inc. Then he started another company that was eventually bought by Apple Inc. (Steve Jobs understood another great truth: Don't get mad. Get even.)Sikorski didn't mention Steve Jobs in his speech. He talked of Lee Iacocca who was fired by Ford Motor and went to work to save Chrysler.
[3] After all, a prominent politician pointed out that the only true and unredeemable criminal class in Kenya is the Parliament.No, it's not a prominent Kenyan politician who said that statement. It was Mark Twain, the legendary American author.
[4] Last Christmas, I read in an old Economist magazine of a small New York City advertising firm that landed the account for Nike shoes and sportswear.O what a lie! I just wanted to sound smart when I wrote that I read an old Economist Magazine.
[5] As Dr. Griffin used to tell us, ""To those whom much has been given, much is expected."I can't remember Dr. Griffin ever saying that quote. It was just emblazoned on the door of the Starehe Boys' assembly hall.
[6] In short, when our billion shillings debt is finally paid, when rural Kenya is finally saved, when tribal politics end...Here, Gerry Sikorski was obviously talking of the United States, his country of citizenship.
[7] I submit that we do not represent Kenya's last generation, but Kenya's best generation.Again here, Sikorski was talking about the United States.
[8] And as we seek our way for ourselves and Kenya, we will have the tools we need as evidenced in the new constitution approved by Kenyans in August 2010.Still again here, Sikorski was talking about the United States. And those five tools he listed are what have made America the most successful nation in history.

There you have them: the truths, that is. So don't think I was such a smart young man. Again I say it, the original author of the speech was United States Congressman Gerry Sikorski who I learnt sometimes back on Wikipedia that he is still alive but is no longer in politics. I tried to connect with him on Twitter but for whatever reasons, he has never responded to my tweet.

Oh, I am beginning to feel tired. So let me stop here. If you have enjoyed reading this true story of mine, please hit the feedback link in the menu of this website (with a mouse pointer of course) and let me know. Good day!

Ť I extracted this magnificent speech from a wonderful book titled Communication: An Introduction to Speech by P. Judson Newcombe, published in 1988 by Allyn and Bacon Inc. in Newton, Massachusetts.


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Top-notch Plagiarism

Without any introductory ado, just read the story of mine below I "wrote" a couple of years ago and review it for yourself on whether it is well-written. And then after you read the story, I will tell you something interesting about it:
"I can visualize the scene again and again: 10.00am, Thursday morning, the 17th of January, 2002, Kiserian Bus Station. I was leaving home for Starehe Boys' Centre and School. As I said goodbye to my family, friends and teachers and as I saw hope, expectation and even a bit of sadness in their eyes and as I stepped into a Kenya Bus with my box, I knew my life had changed forever.

The next two hours in the bus were a time of question, of concern and of tremendous uncertainty. Had I made the right choice in leaving my parents, my family and my home? Had I made the right choice in leaving my home-town and my background? Had I made the right choice in choosing Starehe Boys' Centre?

And then of course, there was that one nagging question, that one over-riding concern: as the only student from my primary school in a class of more than 200 Form Ones at Starehe, would I ever fit in? My home was different, my tribe was different, my experiences were different, my background was different, my native language was different, my accent was different; would I ever fit in? And so there I was in the bus, grappling with those questions of tribe, of culture, of interaction and of ethnicity.

What I didn't know was that the world has been faced with these very questions; the question of tribe, of culture, of interaction and of ethnicity. Like in India, the Muslims and Hindus have lived together in the most fragile peace. In Rwanda and Burundi, the Hutus and Tustis have had a long standing animosity. In Bosnia, the Serbs, the Croats, the Muslims and the Bosnians have broken many truces. The question has been the same all over the world: could different cultures ever come together to reinforce one another?

Four years after the bus ride to Starehe Boys' Centre, I found my answer to the question of culture in the school where I had the four most spectacular years of my life. My academics were great, my extra-curricular were great, my university plans were great. But what left an indelible mark in my mind were none of those achievements. Not the music festival certificates or the KCSE grade A. No. Instead, it were those special moments of human interactions and those human relationships that can never quite be fully translated into words.

The time I played my first volleyball game when I didn't know how to rotate! And yet in a short time, I learnt how to play volleyball. The time I went for camps and hikes during which the relationship was not between Form Ones and Form Fours but between buddies who helped one another. The time I had a long and honest talk with my classmates on the eve of a KCSE Mathematics Paper: I didn't learn much Maths that night. But what I learnt was that as different as we are - different cultures, different backgrounds - inherently, we are still the same.

Yes, four years after the bus ride to Starehe, I found the answer to culture. I found that it takes just a little understanding, just a little sensitivity, just a little open-mindedness, just a little empathy to create harmony among diverse people. I found that it makes no difference what culture we follow, what our background is, what our experiences are, what language we speak or what accent we have. The commonalty of the human bond far transcends those superficial differences.

Yet read the history of this world. Read about the very regions that have been faced with the same issue of culture I faced ten years ago. You will learn about Bosnia where between 1992 and 1996, 300,000 people were slaughtered to death - Bosnians, Croats and Muslims - all because they came from a slightly different culture. You will learn about India where in one maddening week in 1992, over two thousand Hindus and Muslims lost their lives fighting one another. They fought over mosques, of buildings made of brick and mortar. You will learn about Rwanda where in 1994, over 800,000 Hutus and Tutsis lost their lives. Just comprehend that for one small second; many people have lost their lives fighting over superficial differences.

Realize the evilness of this world which has fought hard to highlight our differences. We have forgotten our inherent similarities. Why? All because what has been missing has been just a little understanding, just a little sensitivity, just a little open-mindedness, just a little empathy.

And so, I will campaign for a political seat in the coming elections despite my tender age. I will distinguish myself like never before. I will make a real difference in my country Kenya. But not for one moment will I ever forget the memory of my four years in Starehe. The memory that just a little understanding, just a little sensitivity, just a little open-mindedness, just a little empathy on my part can mean the difference between complete despair for one young boy in Kiserian and remarkable hope for another young boy in Kakuma."
So how have you reviewed the story above? You must have perceived it as startlingly witty as did George Waithaka who thought of it as well-articulated when I shared the story with him via email. If you don't know, George Waithaka was a school-mate of mine at Starehe Boys' Centre who was eventually accepted at the highly-esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

Encouraged by the positive feedback from George Waithaka and a couple of other friends, I went ahead to send the story to the Nation newspaper, Kenya's leading daily, so that I could get a few minutes or so of fame and recognition. The newspaper didn't publish the story.

Undeterred, I decided to include the story in a memoir I typed in my father's old desktop computer. As it happened, all the publishers and literary agents I approached declined to review the memoir, let alone agreeing to publish it.

That the story never got to see its day in a newspaper or in a book turned out to be more than a blessing in disguise; it was a divine plan by God to shield me from disaster. Why? Because I was not the original author of the story; I just plagiarized it from a magnificent valedictory speech by Sajjid Chinoy during the '96 University of Richmond's graduation ceremony in which he narrated how he left his home in India for university education in the United States. See?

After searching Sajjid Chinoy on Linkedin, I have learnt that he is currently the Chief India Economist. I am just praying that he will accept my request to connect on that social network for professionals of which I am one. As in, I am now a professional writer.

Anyway, had the Nation newspaper published the plagiarized story of mine, I would have tarnished my reputation as a good man. That would have sabotaged my chances of ever succeeding. Don't they say that it takes a long time to build a good reputation but a short time to destroy it?

And had I landed a publisher to publish the memoir I attempted to write in which I included the story, I would have suffered the same tragic fate as James Frey - an American who authored a fake memoir that brought Random House Inc. publishing company to its knees. Oh, how I thank my God for the rejections by publishers and literary agents!

Conclusion of the matter: plagiarism is evil. So be innovative. Be beautiful. Be truthful. Be original. Be real. Be you!


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