Finger on the Pulse —June/July 2018

I started writing this piece on a Kenya Airways flight from Kigali to Nairobi. The sun had just set as the plane took off and millions of fireflies seemed to illuminate the city below. It had been a packed week in the land of a thousand hills that left little room for self-reflection and meditation and so when the eagle soared high enough that all that was left to see through the window was a blinking light on the wing illuminating the colors of the Kenyan flag and a mass of darkness stretching out in all directions, I slid down the shutter. I pulled out my laptop, opened a Google Doc and typed away. I paused for the paltry dinner which left me hungrier. I had only done 200 words when the captain announced that we’d soon be descending towards JKIA. I knew the flight was short, but now it felt like it’d just been a commute from Nairobi CBD to Kikuyu. I picked up where I left off the next morning on a 300 meter long queue at the Immigration Headquarters in Nairobi. In the last 8 weeks, I had braved this snake of a line four times in pursuit of a passport. I knew what my government did best was disrespect its citizens and their time. But I wasn’t letting it steal my time. So I wrote on my phone on that line till I had more than a thousand words. I wrote the rest of the piece on my bed, which is pretty much where I do almost all of my writing from. Cats meowed and engines revved in the distance. Let’s play a game: you guess which parts I wrote on a plane, an immigration line and on my bed. I might even have a present for you.

I am learning: how to know that I don’t know. Kujua sijui. This sounds so simple, yet it’s one of the most difficult skills to master, one of the biggest impediments to learning and growth. I regard myself, primarily, as a polymathic, uber-curious student and therefore knowing when and what I do not know is extremely vital for me.

Recently, I have encountered two concepts that underpin the art of not knowing you know: self-awareness and the Dunning-Kruger effect. Self-awareness is a key tenet of the gospel of emotional intelligence that has swept the worlds of business and education. The high priest of this gospel, Daniel Goleman, a mellow psychologist and journalist, preaches that the ability to recognize and proactively manage our thoughts, emotions and behaviors in various contexts powers success even more than IQ.

On my Facebook last week, I wrote an anecdote of self-awareness deficiency. I was watching a World Cup game in a joint in Kigali and this fellow, a little inebriated, kept giving me a play-by-play analysis of the game in Kinyarwanda, a language that I only know two words of: murakoze and kwibuka. I humored him by laughing and nodding at “key points” in the “conversation”. He never noticed anything was amiss in the interaction, despite my never uttering of a word to him. In fact, he had a bonus for me: the post-match analysis in Kinyarwanda! In my Facebook post, I noted that my Rwandan commentator reminded me of a boss I had a long time ago. Not because this boss spoke in a language I didn’t understand, even though he did have a penchant for using superfluous language for show. Or because the boss was inebriated. Instead, it was this boss’s lack of awareness of what his team, myself included, wanted from our jobs and how his attitudes and behaviors were at odds with our goals, and thus the organization’s success. This boss failed to notice fake praise and pseudo-consensus where no consensus or praise existed; he was clueless about subtle hints of dissatisfaction in his team (having left no room for overt disagreement); he spoke way too much and listened way too little (especially to voices, like mine, that whisper). And one day, literally one day, all his “followers” left. I am told in Malawi they say if you think you’re a leader look behind you, if no one is following, then you’re taking a walk. Said boss found himself taking a walk. Such are the costs of low self-awareness.

I attended a class where one student asked “what if I’m already self-aware? Why do I need to learn more self-awareness?” The facilitators, great minds on leadership that I respect, responded by saying that self-awareness is not a destination that you arrive at, it is a perpetual process with shifting goalposts that must be refined constantly. And the costs of thinking you have arrived, possibly an indicator that you’re even farther on the journey, are enormous. For you cannot learn as the world learns, you cannot grow as the world grows. You cannot go looking for what you don’t know you don’t have. You cannot quench thirst you don’t feel. You may attend the best of schools or hire the best of coaches or talent, but what will they be worth when you cannot listen to them or practice what they teach?

This is where the Dunning-Kruger effect comes in. This psychological bias explains why incompetent people are so confident in their ability to do the very things they are incompetent in. The reasoning is that these people lack the basic skill to evaluate their skills objectively. (Which gives me echoes of a lack of self-awareness.) So people who can’t sing or rap to save their lives go on national TV claiming they are the baddest rappers in the game (otherwise known in Kenya as the Msupa S syndrome) and “comedians” who don’t know they aren’t funny take primetime TV slots (umh, the Churchill Show syndrome?). Unfortunately, our world today is chock-full of opportunities to showcase your incompetence without putting in the work. So Instagram floods with mediocre photographers who receive tons of likes not for their skill but for their confidence and fame, WordPress and Medium brim with terrible writers who remain terrible because they keep getting ‘love’ for it and LinkedIn bursts with profiles of “CEOs” and “entrepreneurs” who do not understand the intricacies of running an organization. And often the likes and the praise and the ‘love’ get into our heads and so we think we know, while in truth, we do not know that we do not know which is doubly worse than if we simply did not know. Read that sentence again. On the other hand, those who know better become less confident as self-doubt causes them to retreat. But at least, they build their skills and recognize nuances that may not be as easy to articulate in neat slogans or viral clips. That part of the Dunning-Kruger curve is tough to be in for you get no likes and you watch multitudes whose skills don’t match steal the show. If you’re in it for the likes, then it makes all the sense in the world to stay incompetent and confident, to stay put on the peak of Mount Stupid. But if something in you pushes you to be better, urges you towards excellence, then you must brave the chills. For on the other side lays excellence: timeless writing, powerful photos, remarkable music, sustainable profits, significant impact, more happiness — and possibly a Nobel Prize!

I am hoping: that 25 is better than 24. I am turning 25 in 2 weeks and I am quite excited about it. Quarter of a century! 24 will be hard to beat because I experienced more growth and more freedom than in almost any other year of my life. While it had a few down points, most of 24 was brilliant. 23 before it was mixed and 22 was very shitty. So I am praying for more life, more creativity, more courage, more grace, more love, more heart in 25.

I am realizing: that there will be tension even with those who you love when you decide to be authentic and to pursue your vision for your life. That family and close friends won’t always back decisions grounded on your truth, especially when that truth is unpopular. To complicate it further, the resistance will come from a place of love — even though it might not feel as such. You need the courage to be comfortable in that tension and to waddle through the muck. Notice I could have said push through, but I chose the verb waddle. Pushing means you’re confident and forceful, waddling on the other hand is slow and unsure — but it is still motion. Navigating tensions with those close to you is hard, and it requires tact because these relationships matter — but so do our visions, so do our truths, so do our truest selves.

I am listening: to long stuff like lectures and podcasts. I’ve watched several lectures by Daniel Goleman who I find quite insightful (one on social intelligence and one on focus). Musically, I am all over the place. The other day I realized I had backed up like 300 songs from my old laptop on Sheila’s laptop more than a year ago and so I moved them to my phone and I’ve been bumping to them. So I am listening to the old and the new. K’naan’s 2009 album Troubadour alongside Drake’s Scorpion.

I am reading: more books rooted in human psychology. In the last month I have slowed my reading pace, managing only two books. First, I read Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman because I am on a Goleman binge and I am always looking for ways to be more focussed and excellent. Goleman centers focus on a thorough discussion of empathy, excellence and understanding. He grounds his works in science — which in some parts can get too heavy — but writes with the fluidity of a literary journalist. One major takeaway from this book that I wish to pursue further is systems thinking. Basically, how do we understand the interconnected things we cannot see but that are part of our universes and affect our lives?

The second book I have been reading is what many call the definitive book on suicide: Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison. Jamison, a psychotherapist, author and a survivor of a suicide attempt herself, draws from psychology, personal accounts, psychopathology, biology, sociology and many other sources to paint an in-depth and detailed image of one of the leading killers of our times, especially among teens and young adults. I feel like I have learnt more about mental health from reading this book than about suicide — which is no accident because the two are sides of the same coin; they’re deeply intertwined. I decided to study suicide when I found a friend on Facebook had re-posted a post of a young man who’d threatened to commit suicide and had successfully done it. I wondered what I would have done if I was a friend of the young man and whether it would have been effective in saving his life. The loss of Avicii and Anthony Bourdain to suicide in the past few months has also placed the topic in my mind and Jamison’s book is putting a lot of it into perspective. I will write a longer piece on this including more personal reflections.

I am watching: the World Cup, of course. I’ll admit I’ve flip-flopped in this World Cup more than in any other tournament. I’ve been like the guy in this video. First I supported all the African teams (and Brazil to win the whole thing lol) then I went with Belgium but now I am Team France for the final.

Also, I am so late to this party but I found Hurricane Chris’ Halle Berry. Chris Rock has this bit in his 2004 comedy special, Never Scared, where he talks about how he loves rap music but it keeps getting hard to defend. This is exactly how I feel about this Halle Berry jam: love its groove, but it’s hard to defend. So I won’t even try *hides face*.

I am also watching almost everything Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is in from his TV appearances, to his images at airports, to Jumanji to Rampage to Skyscraper. I love his drive and energy. And he has a soft interior that juxtaposes beautifully with his giant, masculine exterior — something I find awe-inspiring. Like when he sang a Samoan song on Colbert or cried in Rampage. It’s like Terry Crews standing up with the victims of sexual assault or Justin Baldoni challenging traditional norms of masculinity. This kind of shit moves me.

I am loving: my baby. For real, I am loving this Sheila woman. It’s going to be so hard to be physically away from her for months because my life for the past three years has revolved around her. We’ve been on the craziest adventures together and also had some of the dumbest arguments ever (and laughed about it later). We’ve made magic. We’ve been magic. She makes me a better man everyday. I am a very difficult person to love but she puts in the work. She’s also very difficult to love but I put in the work. So, yep!, this month and every day, I am loving you my ka-person. Special dedication from DJ 254 In the Building to you:

I am accepting: that it is OK to be uncomfortable in discomfort, especially social discomfort. I am accepting that I will step into the shadows and observe when among crowds of new people. I am accepting that it’s not about them, but about me and the kind of person I am. And that it is not something to be ashamed of or a problem to fix. Yes, it will feel uncomfortable to be lonely in a crowded room: palms will water, heart will palpitate and breath will fasten. Yet, many times it will be necessary to stay in such spaces for with time the ice will thaw and I will meet lifelong friends and learn meaningful lessons in such spaces.

I am wondering: what I’m supposed to do when my government doesn’t respect my time, my feelings and my money. What am I supposed to do when my government actively blocks opportunities I worked so hard for? I know in our parts of the world we’ve resigned ourselves to surviving and thriving despite, not because of, the government. But what do you do when the government stops you from thriving even despite it?

Luckily, as I write this, I have finally received my renewed passport which I started applying for two months ago. This follows more than a week in cumulative time spent at Nyayo House with “kuja next week” promises, if we can mutilate the word promise and use it here. If I was to value the amount of time I have spent in Nyayo House, it’d be more than my rent for two months. But the government doesn’t value my time. We’re in 2018 but our government operates like it’s in the 80’s — of course without Michael Jackson and all the good things of that era. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that someone will spend five hours in a line at Nyayo House today to check if a passport they applied for in January is ready only to be told to come back next week to wait for another five hours to check? This, for a document that is the right of every citizen, a document supposed to take 10 days to process. In a day or two, my girlfriend can make a system for citizens to check if their passports have been processed from their phones but the cartels who benefit from the opaqueness of the system would never let this happen. Otherwise, how will they get the bribes to “fasten the process”? In those queues I met people who’d missed rare opportunities because they could not get their passports. And they weren’t happy people in case you’re wondering. They weren’t walking around draped in flags screaming how they love Kenya and Kenyatta.

In Rwanda, they talk about accountability for funds and quality of service in the public sector. In South Africa, they have a Public Protector. (An aside: early in the week, I had the honor of sitting through a lecture by Professor Thuli Madonsela, the former South Africa Public Protector who exposed Jacob Zuma’s corruption and eventually led to his ouster. What a woman!). But in Kenya, what are we supposed to do when the government fails us? Go to the ombudsman? Or the Public Prosecutor? Someone name one noble thing that these offices have done to inspire my confidence as a citizen in them. The courts? God? I’d venture to say that revolutions begin when critical masses of citizens feel their governments do not respect their resources, feelings and lives — and the people don’t seem to have something they can do about it.

I am failing: at pausing and reflecting regularly. On second thought, I’ve done more writing in the past month than I did in the year before (about 20,000 words, check out my #MuturiMoneyMatters series if you haven’t already). I am glad I wrote out this piece because it has helped me process a lot of thoughts and ideas that have been floating on my mind. Going forward, I need to be more consistent with my writing and meditation especially when I am travelling. Even in the disorientation that comes with being in new places with new languages and ways of doing things, taking brief moments to breathe slowly and note down how you are feeling and thinking is important.

I am excited: to do more photography. I finally got my DSLR camera and I’ve been doing some experimental shoots (whose results I am not sharing soon). I’ve been watching more tutorials and I am learning a great deal. I am excited to capture my upcoming travels and to tell more stories using this new tool. Expect more photos on this platform with time — and more words too!

I am grateful: for the multitude of opportunities I have to exercise my talents. Several sages, including Tata Mandela, have observed that often in underprivileged communities, it is not the lack of talent but rather the lack of opportunities that hampers achievement. In my brief life, I have seen this play out more times than I can count on my fingers. I have seen brilliant minds and talents wilt due to dearth of opportunity. Former classmates more talented than me walk these streets looking for jobs to no avail, some resort to trades way below their talents and some to trades that do not please those tasked with creating opportunities for them. I know someone who was always top of the class in my primary school who was shot dead in a failed robbery some years back. I have a friend who can commentate soccer matches better than most of the commentators commentating the World Cup who’s hawking deworming pills on the streets of Nairobi. I am not better, not more talented than these folks. I have had better access to opportunities than them. I have gotten better opportunities to study at top-notch schools across the world where I could pursue a range of interests. I have gotten better opportunities to work for great organizations, managers and teams. I have gotten better opportunities to travel to worlds I never imagined I would and experienced more beautiful things than I ever dreamt of. Sometimes I wonder where I would be if I did not have these opportunities. I am very grateful for all these opportunities — they have made most of the difference. My dream is to catalyze the creation of more opportunity on our continent so our talents lead us to better individual and collective futures. By 2035, Africa will have the biggest workforce in the world and it’s only by providing opportunities for all Africans —especially the young — to exercise their talents positively that we can reap the fruits of this reality. Otherwise, it won’t be pretty.


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