Navigating Your Way to Greatness: How and Why


Adamu Tilde


An advocacy-based group in Kano invited me to present a lecture with the above title to a group of graduating students mostly from Northern Nigeria. Below is my random thought about the topic.

I do not know what exactly greatness means in this context. However, I suspect it means conventional success i.e. studying in the university, getting a well-paying job, and marrying  happily ever after. If that is what the convener of this lecture has in mind, then I am afraid: I have no formula for such a thing. Nonetheless, I will proceed to discuss some observations I made which I think would offer valuable insights on what awaits anybody who wants to be better than what he is and wants to make a difference in people's life.

I understand that most of you are from Northern Nigeria. I will be honest with you: you are from a region that suffered lack of critical information about what the world is and how it operates. It's not your fault. Neither mine. It only becomes your fault if you allow the inherited disadvantages to define you. Do not do that. Luckily for you and thanks to technology, you can access all the critical information needed to make a difference in life with a click of a hand. In essence, you have no excuse not to be whatever you want to be. Well, with some luck.

Let me illustrate this lack of critical information. In a viral article I wrote in 2018, I discuss the demographical representations of Nigerians working in the major IoCs of Nigeria's Oil and Gas sector. The major companies have about 10,000 staff of all cadres. Close to 70% of the workforce came from one region of Nigeria with a combined salary of about 350 billion naira per annum. In other words, the income of those 70% staff, as at then, roughly equals the budget of Kano and Bauchi states with a combined population of about 26 million people. These poor representations of Northerners can be seen in almost all the critical sectors of the Nigerian economy: finance, telecoms, IT, services, consultancy, etc.

Again, graduates from Northern Nigeria are poorly represented in all the prestigious scholarships: Chevening, Erasmus Mundus, Commonwealth, and other institutions awarding scholarships and research grants for graduate studies. For example, of the 49 Nigerians selected for the Chevening Scholarship 2019/2020 session, 95% were from Southern Nigeria; only 2 out of 40 Nigerians selected for the Erasmus Mundus Scholarship were from Northern Nigeria in the 2019/2020 session.

This poor representation begs for an explanation. The questions to ask ourselves are: Is there a deliberate effort to stop people from Northern Nigeria from joining those important sectors? Why are graduates of Northern Nigeria conspicuously absent in those important sectors? Are graduates from Northern Nigeria not sufficiently trained to secure jobs in those sectors? Are graduates from Northern Nigeria not in the know of the countless opportunities outside Nigeria?

I will attempt to answer the above questions. Note the word "attempt". I do not know the answers. I will only share what I think are some underlying factors that explain our absence in those important sectors.

One, poverty of ambition. Our ambition is limited. We are easily satisfied with less and comfortable with the little, believing that that's all for us. This perhaps explains our lack of resolve and determination to go beyond the known, to explore the outside space. You have to be ambitious and daring to explore unknown terrains. And being ambitious is not a terrible habit that is mutually exclusive with being religious or righteous. I will expand on this later. So be ambitious to cross the imaginary line and go beyond the artificial ceiling. Be daring to achieve what has never been achieved in your family, town, and state. Be the pacesetter. Let others learn from the standards you set.

Two, cultural baggage. A mix of culture and religion has subconsciously created a form of cultural heritage that puts us in a disadvantaged position. We have a culture that is contemptuous of wealth and prosperity. We see poverty as a virtue. This culture diminishes any form of competition which is critical in exploring opportunities in the aforementioned sectors. To survive the 21st century, you have to be overtly competitive to subdue your competitors by any legitimate means possible. This implies having a quality degree in the range of first or second-class upper, postgraduate qualifications, additional certifications, and professional membership. To achieve greatness you have to let go of a worldview that deodorizes poverty as a form of virtue or righteousness. Money is not the root of all evil, poverty is. Be overtly competitive and determined to excel. Do not let friends or family members blackmail you because you resolve to do better. You can be rich and religious at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. 

Another baggage you must conquer to excel is the challenge of received wisdom that says:  whatever will be, will be. This is not entirely true. Nobody is destined to be poor as the widespread teaching goes. Besides, poverty does not need any explanation. It is a man's baggage since antiquity. What requires explanation is wealth creation because it involves work. To create wealth is to engage in activities that offer values and services that people would be willing to pay. It has been demonstrated again and again that those with quality education are more disposed to creating wealth.

It is disingenuous of you to think that you would be in any multinationals when you do not want to put the required effort into mastering advanced quantitative and verbal reasoning, improved communications skills, topnotch computer skills. Or you want to win a competitive scholarship but you do not want to make several attempts. We have to acquire the discipline of pursuing opportunities to a logical conclusion. Lastly, even if what will be, will be, it is no excuse for mediocre performance and disregard for effort. Put in the required effort and let what will be to be.

Three, being captives of irrelevant values. Values change according to the dictates of time and circumstance. For example, blowing your trumpet was once regarded as distasteful but today, in the age of LinkedIn, you have to sing your song, you have to tell people what you can do even if mildly exaggerated. A mix of self-doubt and self-confidence will go a long way in pushing you to achieving greatness.

Another habit that I think is also detrimental to achieving greatness is the quest for instant gratification. We seem to be in hurry to arrive quickly. We are quick to adjudge a path as a dead-end when we have not even started the journey. We do not like processes. We want to cut corners. But greatness is achieved after putting in a considerable amount of time, energy, and intellect. You would be where you want to be if you remain focused, determined, and dedicated. It takes time but you would be there, Insha Allah.

If values you cherished are detrimental to achieving greatness why should you continue to uphold them? For instance, as social animals, gathering in one place to chat and banter makes us happy. But this comes at the expense of effective utilization of time and energy in engaging in productive activity. In this case, of what use is the continuous patronage of "Majalisa" and the addictive behavior of WhatsApping, Facebooking, and Instagramming?

Going Forward

I do not claim to possess the magic bullet or the elixir that would lead to attaining greatness. However, careful observations of the lives of people who have distinguished themselves in their chosen careers leave me with the following deductions:

One, possession of a can-do spirit. You have to believe in yourself, in your ability to achieve great things. Having such a spirit would instill in you the desire to confront any challenge head-on. You would always be willing to put in the required effort. Your effort may not lead to the desired result all the time but it would guarantee free conscience that at least you have tried.

Two, the discipline to compete for opportunities no matter the odds against you and the ability to see things through. You have to be tenacious and persistent in pursuing your dreams. You have to keep trying and trying. Great things take time to achieve.

Three, delay gratification. There is no such thing called "sudden success". Greatness is a product of meticulous and long-time investment in the accumulation of skills, knowledge, and experience. It does not come suddenly. You have to learn to be patient and wait for the right time. The act of waiting is not slaving as erroneously believed by many. The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruits.

Four, be comfortable with being uncomfortable in an uncomfortable circumstance or environment. We all want to be close to our loved ones and the people we know. But that should not come at the expense of settling for mediocre performance. Tough times never last, tough people do. No circumstance is permanent.

You may have been wondering why you should commit yourself to all the aforementioned hurdles and tasks just to achieve greatness. Well, we all have varied idiosyncrasies. We have different motivations and aspirations. So my answers on why you should be great in what you are doing are personal hence not applicable to everybody. However, what being great can do for you is that it can afford you the opportunity and chance of reaching the climax of your career, thereby providing you with the opportunity to drive policies that would positively affect your society. Another advantage of being great is that it widens your space of influence, thereby giving you the opportunity to facilitate cultural changes. Being great comes usually with monetary rewards that can be used to facilitate economic activities, train skilled manpower and improve the pool of human capital. If greatness can help achieve all this, I think it is worth the effort to pursue it.