Wednesday, May 19, 2010

10 Life Lessons From Ghana - Lesson 7

Lesson 7 is

Do Things You'll be Proud of

I give Rachel Maddow full credit for the words: Do Things You'll be Proud of because whilst I've been trying to live by these words for the last couple of years, I was never able to express it so expertly.

In the last 2 years or so, I've realised I have a disease. This disease is an extreme need for relevance in my life. You could call it the "so what" syndrome. Before, during, and even after I do anything big, I ask "so what?" or "then what?". And if I can't justify it to myself in a way that makes sense to me, I don't do it. This disease alone wouldn't be so bad...except I have a 2nd disease called Idealism. And if you put these 2 diseases together, you'll  understand what sort of things leave me conflicted. Being idealistic is not always considered a good thing. Actually, the world likes people who get real. So sometimes being Idealistic gets me in trouble. But I can't help being who I am. Or rather, I could help it if I wanted to but I don't want to help it. Secretly I think I'm right, and it's the world which needs to wise up and get more idealistic.

What's interesting is that I haven't always had these two diseases. I acquired them in school. I became idealistic in college, and the need for relevance happened in graduate school. That's expected, you know. It's expected that you'll want to save the world when you're in college. It's expected that you'll be naive enough to think you can. What's not expected is that you'll remain like this when you enter the "real world". In the real world, you are expected to get real. Sadly, most of us do. 

When we leave college, we also leave behind our childish notions of wanting to change the big bad corporate world. We leave behind dreams that we will one day set good examples. Life gets in the way. You find yourself at a point where you need a job and you take whichever you get. We no longer question why we make 10 times more than another person in our workplace who brings equal value but does not have an American passport and was not recruited from abroad  and so is not considered an expat. The activists in us die. We cease questioning "the bad guys" especially when things begin working in our favor. People without advocates continue to be without voice because those of us who can speak have chosen to keep quiet. Pretty soon, we become the "bad guys". Life goes on, and nothing changes. That's what's expected. That's what will happen to 90% of the people reading this blog right now. Unless they actively guard it.

You can keep interested in these things by regularly checking what advice people who've actually done noteable things in life give to young people about to start life. Such people are the ones who get invited to give commencement addresses so you could just read a lot of commencement addresses. I do. I suspect that's why I'm still not cured of my diseases.

My diseases influence the kinds of work I would be proud to do. It even influences where I'll put my money. A few months ago, in conversation with a friend, I said that even if I knew I could make money and become fabulously wealthy importing stuff into this country, I wouldn't. So she asked why and I said because it's not interesting. There's nothing to it. She made a case for why it might be interesting.I think she used Melcom as an example, saying this business has been serving the needs of Ghanaians for years, and that Ghanaians cannot (do not?) make everything we use anyway so we'll have to import some things so what's wrong with having a business that addresses this need? Nothing.  I couldn't really articulate what exactly it was I felt. I saw the sense in what she was saying. I bought it, but I still wouldn't do it. Why? It's honest business. It addresses needs. It makes money. What's not to love? What I couldn't articulate at the time is that it wasn't something I'd be proud of. I know. There's something wrong with me. I wouldn't be proud of owning Melcom? Nope. Sorry.

I think it's because secretly, I believe we should be manufacturing our own damn electric stoves, and kettles and tvs. But If I can't figure out how to make that happen, I'm not going to be a part of the problem of foreign dependency by getting into the business of importing them:) I told you I had a disease:) And I also secretly think we could produce everything we need if we tried hard enough. Idealistic. Check.

My good friend Thomas who likes to leave long comments on this blog told me the last time he was in Ghana that he thinks this is a weakness. And I said, actually maybe it is. I even gave him an example from my own life. It was about how at some point in my life I'd wanted to clean the streets of Accra but my solution at the time was a complete solution. It involves collecting the waste and then recycling it. The recycling bit seemed to require millions of dollars. As a college sophomore, I didn't know how I would find this money, so I gave up. But I realise that Zoomlion just focussed on doing the first part - collecting rubbish - and are making enough money from it that they probably can afford to recycle at some point in the future if they want to. I said then, that it would seem to make sense that sometimes you can make the money first doing something "less interesting" and then use that money to do the important thing. But personally, I wouldn't. hehe. I couldn't give him any sensible reason why I wouldn't. I chalked it up to idealism or something like that. And we left the topic on that note. I don't think I expressed this, but in my head, I was thinking that very few people actually stick to their plans of doing something else first to find the money to do the "important thing". I didn't want to end up as one of those people who abandoned the "good intentions" after realising how much money I could make doing the "less interesting" thing. I wouldn't be proud of myself.

Because for me, making the money was not what was going to make me proud. What's going to make me proud is that I solved some problem and made money along the way. Now that problem needs to be one I care about. For some people, it doesn't matter. If they can make money doing it, and it's honest business, they'll do it. For me, I ain't doing it unless I'd be proud to solve that problem.

What's the point of all this talk? To tell you to do that which you'll be proud of. If for you, that is importing kettle, by all means do that. I'm not sure if this is a lesson I learned in Ghana. It's sort of a realisation I've come to. Hopefully it helps you think through what you will and won't do. I hope lesson 6 discourages you from doing business that is dishonest. But when it comes to business that is honest, how do you choose? 

I hope my "lessons" series will get you thinking about what you want, and how you decide what you will and won't do. Let's have a conversation. I hope to learn from you.

Until then, I'll leave you with a video of the speech that inspired me to write this post. Rachel Maddow's commencement address to the Smith College Class of 2010 on May 16th. You have to watch it! Even if you live in Ghana and your internet connection is slow and it takes 15 minutes to download it. You have to watch it. I promise it's worth the trouble. I found it thoroughly inspiring, so hopefully you will too.

Let's talk after you watch it. I know I haven't been good about responding to all  your comments, but I'll try.


  1. Good stuff, Woarabae, strong stuff.
    Additionally, I picked up from Ms Maddow's speech the lesson to continue learning. In many instances, what is right today may not be right tomorrow because the circumstances have changed AND you can only tell the difference because you're well-informed.

  2. Wish everyone in Ghana was afflicted with your 'diseases' because i am too, though i can do the boring things that will lead me to the more exciting one later and since i don't work in with the number two (don't ask why), i have a third 'disease' that is i am a no rules bender but you better make sure the rules are airtight. But yes, be honest with yourself and never lose the significance of what you can achieve. I know i haven't.

  3. Watched the address. Though-provoking. Do you have any more links to such commencement addresses?

  4. Esi, am soo....lost for words. You've given me soo much to think about, not that this is new, rather a timely reminder. Integrity, which could also be referred to as faithfulness( I'm commenting on lesson 6, 7 and Integrity) was among the final messages I heard at one of our numerous joint services in Uni.
    Lately, I've realised am sinking into the group that seeks to reward themselves for their past faithfulness. And I must say, I'm not proud of what have done lately. You however, have given me much to munch on and I'll do so and practice till my integrity is better!!!

  5. Glenn Beck's commencement speech @ Liberty. I was moved especially since all 'popular' media paints this guy in such negative light and I had fallen victim to unfiltered biased media reporting. Anyways, it's worth a watch. I was more than moved.

  6. Disclaimer: Esi, I really like your writing and I hope you continue so please don't take this criticism the wrong way. Also, I am posting anonymously this time because I don't want this to become personal; yes, you know me in real life.

    Lesson #8: Try not to be so self-righteous! Ebei... you have moved back home and decided to pursue a career that is a bit off the beaten path (writing) for most Ghanaians with your educational background. This is all well and good and I applaud you for these choices. I'm sure you met a lot of doubters along the way, as we all do. However, please get over these achievements because these actions do not make you a more idealistic or patriotic person than anyone else. Try to avoid that tone in your writing... you are better than that and people are turned-off by that sort of thing. You can call me a "hater" but I believe you're better than that too.

  7. Anonymous, you ARE a hater, but I'm sure you already know this. For the following reason and this most of all: If you indeed know Ms Cleland as you claim, what stopped you from sending and email or other to her about this particular vice you believe she has.

    There is nothing noble about hiding behind anonymity to make a criticism like you just did, the way you just did and how you just did. You know that story about specks and logs in people's eye? Methinks you need to pick up your Bible and get a refresher course. Cause you are all types of wrong, I would not know were to end.

    Ms Cleland, I know you know enough to analyze the merits (supposing that there are any) in the claim your acquaintance made, despite it's distasteful packaging and transport. I for one completely got blind-sided by that critic, I totally disagree with it.

    However, my point is don't stop writing from your heart, you inspire a lot of people (myself included). Much love.

  8. I really cannot believe this anonymous commentator. If you have the guts to make such an attacking comment and 'cleverly' label it lesson 8, HAVE the balls to identify yourself.

    By blogging about her life experiences of the past year, Esi has risked sounding like a brag. By attempting this ten lessons series Esi risked sounding like a know-it-all. However, somebody has got to do it. If you want to fault Esi on this, why not write an encyclopedia of criticism against all the autobiographers of this world? Fault all people who celebratorily chronicle their achievements and experience, title your first chapter Obama.

    And if your problem is mainly with Esi's tone, as her friend what you do is shoot her a private email. You don't 'Ebei' her on her blog. That just makes you a hater.

  9. This is one thing I don't get about my fellow Ghanaians sometimes. I'd call them the blind cheerleaders". In this case, those two comments above attacking the anonymous comment. Sometimes we see people doing great things. But then their potential is cut short by the unwitting cheerleaders who are always there to say how wonderful they are because a) they haven't seen any better and b) they think it's the "good person" thing to do. In this case, they're even going further to shut up others who have the courage to put some brakes on the "fans", and point out where they think you could do better. Undoubtedly, Esi is doing wonderfully with her writing and all. But if someone takes the pains to offer polite, reasonable criticism, or at least share a minority opinion, for God's sake, allow them to! It's people who don't demand more of their friends or leaders that allow national leaders to construct half a road and yet have an opening ceremony for the sake of back-patting.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. @Nii:

    There is a difference between criticism and hate commentary. With criticism: you tell me what I am doing wrong and if I so choose, I can ask you to elaborate to better myself. Criticism requires engagement.

    With hating, I cannot identify you and so cannot rightly engage with you. Hating (the anonymous comment) is pointless.

    Now, "polite, reasonable criticism" and "minority opinion" are all good things. Even rude criticism is a good thing. But the point is, you lose cred by offering these under a guise. If your intentions are so noble, why are you hiding?

    And Nii, if for "God's sake" criticism should be allowed, why do you jump on "unwitting cheerleaders" who are criticizing the critic?

  12. I was not going to spend any more energy on this just cause I did not think it was worth it but I have to add that as a culture Africans need to learn to celebrate our victories.

    In a world that seems to just be balancing on
    tenterhooks in anticipation of the next big African screw-up, to be the first to scoop it up and show the whole world how backward and devastated and hopeless and poor, etc we are as a people we need to learn to make a fuss when we get somethings right. If only to remind ourselves that we can.

    There are more than enough people in Ghana today eager to point erratically in a sort of sadistic glee at failings of our leaders. And with so many bad, rotten leaders I think it's more crucial to notice the rare gems. To give equal attention when someone is trying to get things right. As much as we are ready to deride negative behaviour we must also (and perhaps even more so) promote positive traits we want perpetuated.

    Criticism is hard to take no matter the intention of the giver of the validity of the content. If the motives are genuine it can be an invaluable tool, however people who use venom and spite to stall a positive force should not be abidden.

    Free speech for all...

  13. @PK, long time since we've seen you in this space. Glad to have you back. Continual learning always.

    @Lyrix: These are a few of my favorites

    @Ely, laughing at rewarding yourself for faithfulness. Then maybe i'm making ammends.I think you'll figure it out. Best of luck and biiiig hug.

    @MNO, didn't know who Glenn Beck was before this vid so i learned something new. I watched the address. The part where he said he only went to college for 1 semester 'cos it was all he could afford made me cry. Really inspirational. Thanks for sharing.