Resist that calling. It’s
probably not your purpose in life
February 01, 2016
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
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
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.