Have you ever wondered: “why was I put on this earth?”. For a long time, I asked myself this question as I tried to make sense of the world and my place in it. I was born in Ghana, but left at the age of four and moved to a different African country every four years until I was eighteen. I didn’t grow up rich, but wasn’t desperately poor either. I had 3 meals a day, a roof over my head, and received most of my pre-university education in government schools. My parents didn’t get divorced, and I generally had a happy, healthy childhood with my three siblings.
After high school, I won a scholarship to attend Macalester College in Minnesota and then worked for McKinsey across Africa, who later sponsored my MBA at Stanford. I often wondered why, among all the hundreds of millions of young people in Africa, I had been so lucky to get these opportunities, especially when there was so much poverty, hunger, and general despair among my fellow Africans. Each time I saw someone begging in the street, I wanted to do something. Each time I saw an unhealthy child who couldn’t get decent healthcare, I started thinking that perhaps I should use my Stanford MBA to start a chain of healthcare clinics for children.
But soon I realized there was no way that I could tackle all these problems in my lifetime, and I frequently got frustrated and confused by what I was supposed to do with my life. Then in 2006, I was nominated to receive the Echoing Green Fellowship as ‘one of the 16 best emerging social entrepreneurs in the world’. During the interview process, my co-founder Chris Bradford and I were asked about our ‘moment of obligation’ — the specific moment when we decided to quit our jobs and embark on our journey to start the African Leadership Academy. Being asked that question helped me to crystallize why I had been put on this earth.
You are defined by your ‘Moments of obligation’
Every now and then, we come to a fork in the road that requires us to either stay on our current life path, or change course and do something radically different. These ‘moments of obligation’ are usually caused by a sense of outrage about some injustice, wrong-doing, or unfairness we see in society or by an opportunity that can revolutionize the world and benefit us personally. The former is what Mother Theresa probably saw every day in the slums of Calcutta and the latter is what Bill Gates must have felt when he saw the opportunity to develop software for mini-computers in the mid-1970’s.
You should ignore 99% of your moments of obligation
No matter how guilty it makes you feel, you should ignore 99% of these moments of obligation. You should ignore them because you have been put on earth for a purpose, and each time you go down a path that is not your purpose, you are taking time away from preparing for your actual calling. It is in rare instances — perhaps just 1% of these moments of obligation — that you should actually follow the new path you are being drawn to. So how do you know when it is indeed that ‘1% moment’?
Ask yourself three big questions
Each time you are faced with a moment of obligation, you should ask yourself three big questions. First: ‘Is it big enough?’ I believe that those who have been fortunate enough to receive good education, be healthy, have great work experiences and powerful networks should not be solving small problems for society. You were lucky enough to have these opportunities so you could help others. You should be solving the biggest problems for the world, not small ones. So if it’s not big enough, pass on it. It’s not your purpose in life.
Second: ‘Am I uniquely positioned, more than almost anyone else in the world, to make this happen?’ Look back at experiences you’ve had — some due to circumstances beyond your control, and some due to deliberate choices you made — to see if the experiences prepared you better than almost anyone else in the world to pursue the tentative mission. If it is absolutely clear that you are better prepared than most because of these patterns you notice, then this may just be that 1% of the time when you should follow the new path.
Third: ‘Am I truly passionate?’ Impacting the world is hard — so if you’re not really passionate about the issue/cause at hand, your energy will fizzle out. You should use the ‘sleepless night test’ for this one. If the idea/issue you want to pursue is consuming you so much that you can’t sleep at night, then it might just qualify as that 1% idea.
If the answer to these three big questions collectively is not a resounding ‘yes’, then you should ignore the calling. It’s not your destiny. If, on the other hand you reflect and find a clear ‘yes’ for each question, then, and only then should you step up and pursue this calling.
How the three big questions have shaped my life
Two years ago, I was faced with a moment of obligation. I had been running the African Leadership Academy for ten years, and was disturbed by the fact that we could only admit 4% of applicants and had to send 80% of our graduates to study at top universities outside of Africa. I wondered why we couldn’t have our own ‘Ivy League’ on the continent. And then one day, an idea came to me about how we could leverage changes in technology and innovative pedagogy like peer to peer learning to build the ‘university of the future’ in Africa. Initially I tried to ignore it. I was tired of being an entrepreneur, of going through all the stresses of cash-flow issues, operational challenges, and people issues. But the idea kept nagging at me.
So I applied my three questions: Is it big enough? The vision was to build a network of 25 brand new universities across Africa called ‘African Leadership University’ (ALU). Each campus would have 10,000 students — i.e. 250,000 students at a time. Over fifty-years, this would produce 3 million leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists and game-changers in almost any imaginable field for Africa. ALU’s graduates could be the ones to lead the continent out of poverty and desperation. The need for this solution was massive. In Nigeria alone, 1.7m students graduate each year from high school but local universities can only absorb 400,000 of them.
What I had in mind would produce graduates with skills more relevant for the 21st century than most universities in the world today produce. And we would be able to offer this education at 10-20% of the cost of top US universities today. Pioneering this fresh approach to university education in a unique and imaginative way would have ripple effects not just in Africa but for the entire world.
The ALU vision would ultimately require at least $5 billion dollars in capital to pull off. So this definitely ticked the box of ‘big enough’.
Am I uniquely positioned to do this? As I reflected on this question, I realized that very few people in the world were better prepared to do this than I was. How many people had lived and worked in ten African countries and travelled to over twenty-five and could therefore understand the continent’s needs? How many people had launched the African Leadership Network — an association of 2,000 of the most prominent leaders in Africa — who could help pull this off? How many had been the headmaster of a school in Botswana at the age of 18, and then gone on to launch African Leadership Academy, developing a feeder network of 5,000 high schools in 48 countries that could feed this university with applicants? How many young African entrepreneurs had been able to raise $100m on the global market for their previous ventures? As I connected the dots, I realized that the last 15 years had been preparing me with the expertise, know-how, and relationships to pull off this much bigger feat. Raising $100m had been the ‘training wheels’ I needed to raise $5billlion. Building a world-class pre-university institution on a small scale had been practice to launch something on a far larger scale at the tertiary level. Launching the African Leadership Network had given me access to influential people who could help navigate all the regulatory hurdles we would surely meet as we brought this new model to life.
Am I passionate? Initially I tried to run away from the ALU idea. I pitched it to several friends and urged them to take it on. But I couldn’t stop thinking about its potential for changing Africa — the continent I loved so much. I could also see how it would revolutionize tertiary education on a global scale. Its game-changing potential excited me beyond measure. So it definitely passed the ‘sleepless night’ test.
With answers to all three questions a resounding ‘yes’, I realized that the calling to launch ALU was one of those 1% moments. I therefore stepped down as the day-to-day CEO of African Leadership Academy and have poured my energy over the last two years into African Leadership University.
Today, we have opened two ALU campuses. One is in Mauritius known as the African Leadership College and the second is known as African Leadership University (Rwanda). A campus in Nigeria is soon to come. We received 6,000 applications in 60 days for our first 180 slots (making us one of the most selective universities in the world from inception). We are on course to reach 1,000 students next year. We recently launched a revolutionary new MBA program to develop the leadership skills of African professionals. The model is working. We’re creating innovators and entrepreneurs in a refreshing new way and at a fraction of the cost of existing world-class universities. Some of the world’s best employers like McKinsey, IBM, Coca-Cola, and Swiss Reinsurance are partnering with us, and some of the savviest investors in the world are funding our cause. It’s going to be a very long journey. It will take 25–30 years before the 25 campuses educating 250,000 students at a time are fully realized. But I finally know why I was put on earth — to develop these future leaders for Africa and to reshape education for young people all around the world.
So next time you feel a calling, I urge you to resist it. It’s unlikely to be your purpose. Ask yourself the three big questions: Is it big enough? Are you uniquely positioned to make it happen? Are you really passionate about it (i.e. does it pass the ‘sleepless night’ test)? If the answer to these three questions is yes, then you should pursue the calling. Otherwise, keep doing what you’re doing. It’s all part of a plan that will reveal itself someday.
About the Author
Fred Swaniker is the founder of the African Leadership ‘Group’ — an ecosystem of organizations that includes African Leadership Academy, African Leadership Network, African Leadership University and Africa Advisory Group. Collectively, these institutions aim to transform Africa by identifying, developing, and connecting three million game-changing leaders for Africa by 2060.