I’ve walked up to a lot of people – I’d say hundreds – and asked them the following question.
“If I gave you a blank cheque, right now, and told you you would get whatever amount you put on it, what would you write?”
shallower younger ones made up numbers(a ‘gajillion’ might have been the most popular). The overthinkers rationalized and asked what the limits were. The moderate intellects thought about it and then came up with a number in some foreign currency. The people who wanted to seem smart asked me what I would write on it. But you know what the large majority said?
“I don’t know.”
And therein lies the issue with the way we think. It’s not the lack of ability or talent; resource or opportunity; it’s a seeming lack of ambition and direction.
Remember when I said Kenyans don’t want to get employed? A lot of people took that to mean that I thought Kenyan youths were counter-productive degenerates. Au contraire. Their problem is not that they work in the opposite direction that they should be working. It’s that they do what they should.
That “should” is defined at some levels by a pseudo-feudal mentality where a stonemason’s son dreams to become a stonemason as well; just a better one. So for the have-nots and have-littles, what they “should” do and what they are taught to do, seldom strays very far from what was done before them. It becomes a situation where once you match or outdo your parents, you are successful and can stop now.
That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the entrepreneurs children tried to be as independently successful in their ventures as their parents before them. Instead, what happens is that the talentless rich heirs hoard off all the money and power and keep it in the family – worse still, in the same place. This creates a problem because the rich then get richer faster than the poor’s conditions of living can increase.
The gap between the rich and the poor then becomes so obscene that the richest 10% of the country clocks in close to 50% of the country’s wealth. As for the poorest 10%; they only pocket 1%. So that means for the large majority of us, it really seems like there is no other option. The glass ceiling is not only low, it’s getting higher up by the day and thickening by the hour.
But does that mean that there is no possibility for redemption or growth for those of us who weren’t born with silver cutlery? Does that mean there’s no hope; no reason to push forward? Are we doomed to remain in those lower percentiles by genetic predetermination?
I like to think not. As a matter of fact, I like to think that things would be completely different if everyone felt the same. Not optimistic, dreaming about clouds made of money, but realistic about their abilities.
Realistic enough to look at a 200k a month check and say: “That’s only USD$21,500 a year, after tax. Which, essentially a little more than minimum wage in the US.” Why does this matter? Well, believe it or not, our costs of living are not so different. And given that we have more ground to cover and catch up on, that 200k that one would think were a lot to earn is really not that much to begin with. If we took account of our true worth and decided to push ourselves further, to innovate and excel, I’m sure we’d all find that we could earn more. And even if we didn’t, we’d at least have some direction and some drive to; enough to know what to write on a blank cheque.
But then again, why would we not be able to earn more? We’ve reached a day and age where we are not constrained by borders. If you are the best civil engineer and you can’t get government contracts, go online and see who’s looking for a civil engineer. I know a good number who took contracts in Southern African and are now obscenely well-off. If you’re an excellent whatever and you feel limited here, find a way to arm yourself and equip yourself elsewhere: financially and otherwise. But as soon as you’re done with that, come back home and help break this glass ceiling for the others. It’s very easy to get so caught up building a foundation abroad that you forget where home is. We have a responsibility to do that.
Ultimately, it all boils down to just that. Responsibility. Yes, the odds are stacked against us, and yes, it’s probably easier achieving similar success abroad. But there are those of us who can’t leave and have to stay back – the best of us at that. There are those who’ve been left with no choice but to stagnate because they’ve quite literally maxed out all their options. There are so many of us who think about the alternative: hustling everyday, working harder, later, longer; just to own their own futures and decide to instead be comfortable in their present. And that is the majority of us. Given the option between working harder for the future and spending those extra thousands on a few nights out in the city, we pick the latter. Ignorance is bliss. And for those with nothing, not even an opportunity, they watch us and think hope is lost. Our mentalities are all sideways.
There’s no endgame; no purposeful direction to our efforts. At the same time, there’s no ambition and no desire to excel beyond a certain point. Certainly, there is no limitless conceptualization of what success is. There’s not even a basic definition for it. There is however a definition for ‘survival’ and that’s what we use to get by. That is our bar and we refuse to raise it. Anything above it is deemed good.
In America they are told to achieve their dreams and, hate it as we may, some of them do, most of them try to. In places like India, they are pushed to seek the highest intellectual standards and true to the fact they do. In Japan, they seek to be the most advanced while maintaining the strictest values, and we see that in everything about them.
What about in Kenya? What is our work culture? It seems all we ever seek out is comfort; sustainability. And once you get it, you’re done. So you live in the same neighborhood, frequent the same locals and hang with the same crew until you’re too old to do any more and then hope that the children will be the future.
We need to make it our prerogative to break the glass walls and ceilings around us. There is entirely too much stagnant potential in us that needs to bubble before it can brew. We need to not be too proud to take on opportunities when their offered, or too intimidated to try and rise up past our current ranks. We need to be able to snatch that blank cheque when it’s offered and write down a number on it and then briskly walk it to the bank. But we don’t. We hesitate. We question. We stay so distracted that when opportunity does come knocking, our door is wide open and nobody is home.
Our number 1 problem, I fear, is that even if the odds weren’t against us, most of us wouldn’t try to beat them.