In Steve Jobs’ commencement speech in Stanford, he made mention of connecting the dots; and that connecting the dots only makes sense looking backwards and not forward.
While I do have an appreciation for this, many of my experiences are not as glamourous as most people would think. More accurately, it was ‘somewhat’ glamourous towards the end, but never glamourous in the beginning.
A journey to the unknown
Seven years ago, I took a field assignment in the Phillippines, a country with issues so socially complex that flying for less than an hour can take you to another place, one that is terribly unfamiliar and scary due to its reputation.
Being flown to a place that has become known due to armed conflicts does not strike the traveler as a dream vacation.
But duty beckoned and one could only hope that expectations would be reversed once there. The problem is that it usually does not!
My young British colleague and I had to stay in a small hotel that resembled a place that was stuck in the 1970s.
We were advised to leave post-haste in a white van to a safe house only to change vehicles, which as it turns out was part of a convoy of large pickup trucks loaded with heavily-armed men in fatigues.
There was an eerie silence in the car not typical of Filipinos (usually full of chatter and laughter). We passed several military checkpoints which seemed customary to most in my company, but unsettling for me and the rest of my team.
I was texting my wife to update her on how I was, still alive but not knowing exactly where I was. As we went deeper into the woods, the signal strength on my phone weakened. The signal eventually went to zero and I felt like my lifeline to the rest of civilisation had been severed.
What if we were ambushed or kidnapped? As I clutched my phone, I sighed with a fervent prayer saying, “Let me be okay.” I even asked myself, “How did I get here?”
A few months before, I was executive director of a trust that helped young people get into business through funding and mentoring.
I had worked in enterprise development at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a programme manager since 2001.
On that day, I found myself in a pick- up truck full of armed men conduct- ing a feasibility assessment in a place where enterprise development was sorely needed as part of mining, and perhaps post-conflict rehabilitation.
I dialogued with some of the tribal leaders as well as the local mayor who shared a story of how his whole town was razed to the ground by rebels, after which there was an exodus of families walking out of town with only the belongings that survived with them. It was a razing of medieval proportions!
With that story, he was even suggesting that I stayed longer for a better appreciation. My thought was: What?
I did the assessment with a micro-financing partner who later revealed that another micro-financing worker was murdered during our stay. I managed to send in the report and called it a week.
Back to the future
Four years later I receive a call from the same lady who gave me the scary assignment in Mindanao.
At that time I had just finished some of my best corporate consulting work after leaving the economic development sector. Corporate work is as glamourous as people would expect it to be, being able to work in posh environments.
I was offered to work for another mining company for a year doing the same nature of work I did in Mindanao, but this time in a more hospitable environment.
With some hesitation I took the job on instinct and found myself flying over in a private plane every week. Again I asked myself, “How did I get here?”
The answer was actually simple, I just had to look back. There are a number of points in the past that helped me get to where I am right now.
The truth is that if I had not worked for the ILO and the trust programme 13 years ago, I would not be the business planning consultant that I am now.
With that experience of working with young entrepreneurs, I am now able to provide coaching and advisory services to some of the most recognisable entrepreneurs in the country.
Many of the young people I mentored and coached a decade ago have moved on to greater things as successful entrepreneurs. Some took the enriching experience to pursue very promising careers beyond school.
Another point is that if I had not taken that scary trip to Mindanao, I would never have imagined taking a private plane to work and back on a weekly basis.
My economic planning experience and analysis have brought me face-to-face with other reputable firms where I was able to showcase some of the best examples of how their own frameworks could be used in the field.
The experience also allowed me to have a deeper look at some of the most compelling economic issues that plague our country. The first hand insight has led me to write some of my best work, currently being referenced by many development economists online.
Most importantly, it has developed a greater sense of social consciousness that has fueled many of my writings. Without taking risks in the past, I would not have had the experience to write about this now.
The connected dots
According to Jobs, connecting the dots looking forward is always hard. It is easier joining the dots looking backwards. This said, there are four things that I want you to remember:
1. Have courage
You will face many unsettling circumstances in life. Have the courage to move forward despite difficulties. Remember that at the end of the day you will have three things: your faith, family and friends. With these, you will have everything you need to move forward.
2. Know Your USP
Know your Unique Selling Proposition. Know the skills and talents you have in the offering. Know your purpose and design. Create a strategy for yourself. Perhaps doing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis on your own personal brand could be your first step?
3. Opportunities for growth will always stretch you
You might find yourself somewhat inadequate or lacking experience. When presented with an opportunity, take it anyway. Walk through the open door and you will find that your ability to learn will always help you grow into a new role.
Who you are determines what and who you will attract. Look for patterns in opportunities that are currently made available to you. If you are always being shortlisted for certain assignments, that gives you a clue as to what you are great at.
We learn more from mistakes than our triumphs. Make your mistakes early and you might find that many of those mishaps could lead you to a greater understanding of your potential.
If there is anything you must do though, it is to keep moving forward. Keep connecting dots. The further you move along, the greater will be the image of your life revealed as you fulfil your destiny.