“Think you’re escaping and run into yourself” and other advice for the 2019 graduating class
I was invited to be the commencement day speaker at The American International School of Lagos, where I spent my 8th and 9th Grade years. Very few people know about one of the toughest months of my life. It was an honor to be invited to share the truth.
Students, congratulations on the education you have received and earned. Parents congratulations on surviving AISL’s school fees. I know that Graduation speeches are meant to inspire and leave you feeling fired up! Inspiration is wonderful, but I’d like to try something a little different. You’ve made it through AIS and we’re all here to celebrate your success but today, I want to talk to you about failure. Specifically, I want to talk to you about my personal failure, the lessons I learned and how those lessons help me think about the biggest problems we face in the world today.
If there was a least likely candidate for epic failure, I was it. Student President in AISL, Student President in ACS Cobham, straight A’s for most of my pre-college career. Then I got to my dream school, The University of Chicago and my grades just couldn’t cut it. I was asked to leave by the end of my second year. This was the greatest personal failure I have ever endured till date. But it taught me things I use till this day. Four lessons in particular that I would like to share with you.
Firstly, choose the long way
When I was at the end of 8th grade here in AISL, there was an exam we took for the chance to skip algebra 2 and move on straight to geometry. I didn’t pass by 2 points. I was the smart one so I had to find my way into that geometry class. I remember standing in the courtyard begging my then math teacher, Mr. Marks. I had my twin sister for reinforcement. He said to me, “I will let you move on to geometry but I wouldn’t recommend it. Taking this shortcut will come back to bite you, not now, but later.” I thought to myself…yeah yeah whatever. I had succeeded. But he was right, even though I continued to do well for a while. I arrived at University, chose a tremendously quantitative degree, and I was unprepared. What he was trying to tell me that day in the courtyard is also nicely summed up by one of my favorite authors, James Joyce, “Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home.” No shortcuts.
Pay attention to your community
After being asked to leave, I struggled. I lost my sense of identity and I needed someone or a few people actually, to believe in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. My family lifted me up. That is when I realized that they loved me more than I had done enough to deserve, and certainly more than evolution required. Now, I want everything in my life to be optimized to show love to the people who always show up. Family, which often includes more than only people who share your last name, is the richness of life. Here with you today are many of the people who will lift you up. Don’t take them for granted, even if you have never experienced any trying times. Appreciate them day in, day out. Everyday.
Take second chances seriously
When I was asked to leave The University of Chicago, the school gave me a second chance to come back after a year of showing that I could handle academic rigour. That year in London and Geneva I worked hard to prove what I was capable of. I was allowed to return and I excelled. We all make mistakes, sometimes bigly…(to borrow a word from the current US president). I realise how different my life could’ve been if I hadn’t been given that second chance. Many of you will find yourselves in positions with the power to give second chances. Please do so, generously. Life is tough, and we all need a little grace, a little underserved magic.
The other thing I learned is to look at others with great imagination and be kind. Most of the year I spent away from college, no one knew that anything was wrong. Humans are weird like that. We can go through tremendous suffering and show no signs of it. This, my friends is the case for kindness. When someone is rude to you at the supermarket, this is not a cue for you to lash out, See it as a signal, a prompt, to step into their shoes, to imagine ways they might be suffering. Be kind. As you get older you’ll understand that we all nurse some version of a broken dream. Kindness is not some lofty ideal we should aspire to. It’s real. It’s a skill we can all get better at. It’s anything from giving up your seat on a crowded train to stretching out your hand to someone who is new, and struggling to find their place. Better still, one of the kindest things to do is to simply pay attention. We can practice kindness every single day.
You are more resilient than recent or past experiences allow you to imagine. You need to know this. But I can’t shield you from the truth: You’ll have to learn just how tough you are the hard way, at least the first time. I want you to succeed. I really do. But, in the inevitable event that the script of your life takes a detour, know that we survive everything, everything. If you remember nothing else from this speech, remember that. We survive everything, And we do it by applying kindness to ourselves and to others.
I’m almost done. A couple of days ago, I was in the car, on my way home, and thinking about my favorite Aunt. She came to sit with me all those years ago during that very difficult time of my life. She told me not to worry, that everything was going to be alright, and that I would become the exact person that I want to be. How could she have known? Because right now I’m doing much of what I’ve always wanted to do. I couldn’t and didn’t see this far in the midst of my suffering. When I arrived at home, my aunt was there. So I asked her, “When you prayed for me all those years ago, how did you know I was going to be okay?” She leaned forward, took a deep breath (inhale), and I waited for the wisdom, and she said…”I didn’t know! All I knew then was that I pray for the people I care about, especially when things go wrong. I prayed with you that day when you were hurting and I continued to keep you in my prayers. People had done the same for me and it always pulled me up.”
So I too want to pray for you. I care deeply about your success. We are part of the same fabric. So here goes, I pray that you tell the truth: Tell the truth, about this place, school and country that is now a part of you and most importantly that you tell the truth about yourself. I pray that you find your voice, no matter how long it takes (and it may take some time) and that you use it to stick up for yourself and for others. I pray that you hunger enough to keep searching until you find the love of your life. And when you do I pray you have the courage to fight for it, even when things don’t go according to plan. May you be blessed and kept safely and may you be used for the betterment of humanity. Amen.
My dear students, you are the best this country has to offer. Whether your passport is Nigerian or not, this country, this school has shaped you. You have some tough problems ahead of you to solve. Problems of dangerous social divides, inequality, and climate change. Remember what you learned in this school. Remember that you can survive anything. Help others remember that they too are made of stronger stuff than they can imagine. And remember, you will be exactly what you want to be. Congratulations, again and Thank you.