How I learned to became a man from someone I never actually met.
We walked across the street from my uncle’s house, traversing the lavender flower petals embedding the road. My mom said, “You should meet him. He’s been wanting to meet your uncle but your uncle has been away on business.” I size up the task, two friendly security guards that waved when we walked by, about 100 feet to the front door and a beautiful wooden door with a doorbell. I was paralyzed with the million thoughts in my head.
“Who am I to meet him? He liberated a country. Won a Nobel Prize. A Living Saint. All I’ve done is graduate college with a degree in economics specializing in beer game theory.”
“What would I do when I meet him? What would I say?”
During the six agonizing months I spent next to Nelson Mandela, my room overlooking his backyard, I built up a tremendous wall of unnecessary anxiety and fear of the many chances I had to meet him–I never did. The closest I got to meeting him was visiting his jail cell on Robben Island where he spent every day breaking limestone blinded by the sun’s reflection and isolated from other prisoners.
My prison was my own doing. I was inspired sitting on his jail cell bed, looking out the small rectangular opening and imagining how it was for him to be where I was sitting now. I read all I could about him and I grew as a man from the lessons he shared and from not meeting him. Here are the lessons I learned.
1. “How do you eat an elephant? The same way you eat an apple. One bite at a time.”
I crumbled with fear and anxiety because I had put so much more to the initial task at hand. I worried about what to say, why would I be of “value” to such an amazing man. Jesse Moskel, an entrepreneur who defeated multiple life sentences for selling ecstasy in Thailand, received the greatest advice from his dad: You tackle the insurmountable problems the same way you tackle the mundane. One step at a time. Jesse would post the mantra, “Be the happiest prisoner today and focus only on the day at hand.” Put one foot in front of the other, and then repeat until you are at the front door. Knock. Then let destiny unfold.
2. We underestimate how valuable we are.
We downplay how amazing we are and push others of fame or noteworthiness onto a pedestal. Realize that we are all human beings and that greatness is in every one of us. That as humans, we are all flawed even the best. Treat everyone as if they are your next door neighbor, whether or not they win a Nobel Prize.
3. Leadership is grace and courage under fire.
No matter the situation, you need to be composed. In his article, “Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership”, Richard Stengel talked about being with Mandela during a flight when the engine stopped. People on board were in a state of panic, but there was Mandela just reading the paper as if nothing was happening. That calm became contagious as others stopped panicking. Once the plane landed, Mandela told Stengel, “Man, I was terrified up there.” Leadership isn’t muting fear; it is accepting it and still acting composed. This same theme played out throughout Mandela’s life. During imprisonment, he would walk around with his chest out and a smile hiding how scared he was. By doing so, he empowered himself and those around him.
4. Relentless drive without compromise.
There were multiple times when Mandela was granted a conditional release, but he refused and continued to do so until his goal of an unconditional release was met. How many times do we stop short of the goal line? How many times do we compromise? If we look at where we stop, we will realize how close we are to success. Elon Musk’s SpaceX had required three crashes before the first rocket launched successfully. He only had the capital for three failures but still went ahead with the fourth after securing the financing while the third rocket had exploded in flight. Landing a sub-orbital rocket, a feat never before attempted, also took four tries to get right. Elon Musk’s relentless drive is the reason we will live beyond this planet.
5. Be disruptive.
Mandela’s middle name, “Rolihlahla”, literally means trouble maker. He didn’t just protest apartheid-like others before him, he thought 10x and liberated an entire country. Elon Musk has shattered decade old paradigms. Astro Teller, of Google, stated it best when he said, “It’s often easier to make something ten times better than it is to make it 10 percent better.” They are not the exception. We all have the ability to think at that level and the capabilities to act upon it. We are all the same. Who was Sergey Brin before Google? Who was Mark Zuckerburg before Facebook? The answer is just like you.
Photo: Flickr/ Lee Howard