I received my secondary education in a convent school and one of the things I remember the nuns harping about was being in school to pursue our vocations. It was harping to my teenage ears at the time because my adolescent horns had grown to unprecedented levels. Finding our vocation, as the nuns explained was discerning what work we would want to pursue as adults that would help us to serve our community while living to our highest purpose. I now understand vocation to be two-fold. One is about service to God and the other is service to community.
I journeyed through university and into my first job, and now in retrospect, I heard the word vocation less and less, and the word career more and more. My 20s and 30s thus were spent in pursuit of this elusive career. I read every book about career development and attended every course and seminar under the sun on career progression and all that jazz. As I approached my 40s, I began to ask myself whether this was it or whether there was more to it than what I had spent the last fifteen years in relentless pursuit of. I wondered over and over again why I was not happy, yet I had ticked every box of what was expected of me. I had climbed the said career ladder at near demon speed. I thought each rung I climbed would bring me closer to nirvana yet what I got was more exhaustion and less satisfaction.
As I began what I like to call my mid-life reflections, I began to see how self-serving my career progression was; what to do to get ahead; how to get ahead; how to get noticed to get ahead; how to show up early and leave late to get ahead… the sheer thought of it is exhausting. The bottom line was me, me and more of me, and less and less of what mattered in life, relationships; taking time to smell the roses as it were.
I remember taking a few days off to go to Mombasa. The hotel at which we were staying had a few beach boys who spent their days surfing in between trying to sell their wares to tourists. It would suffice to say that surfing was the staple du jour, the selling of wares was merely incidental! One of them introduced himself to me as Danze. He’d been selling curios to tourists, he said, for the last 15 or so years. He showed up every morning at around ten when the tide was coming in and left at around five. Some days were better than others he said to me in a carefree and nonchalant voice. As I continued talking to him, I found myself becoming increasingly resentful of him. For all my weaknesses, I have frequently told my friends, envy is not one of them. Yet here I was growing increasingly envious of him each day I saw him. His only care in the world was whether the weather would allow him to surf (which on most days it would), and whether he would sell some carving at an overpriced cost to a hapless tourist.
I, on the other hand, was here on the verge of a burnout. Worried sick if I would be able to meet my various financial obligations at the end of that month, mostly basic but most of them self-imposed! I also began to have a deep respect for those executives who sold all their worldly possessions to go to some obscure place in the boondocks where they spent the rest of their lives living barefoot in a shack,à la the monk who sold his Ferrari.
My career was good. It had been illustrious and eventful. It accorded me certain comforts, it opened certain doors for me. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted something deeper. Something more intrinsic. Something more intangible. I wanted fulfilment. To turn in at the end of the day, no matter how long or how tedious it was, knowing that I made a difference. That I was of service to others. That I empowered someone. That I inspired someone.
Thus began my leadership journey. As a theatric aside, the spate of corruption cases that have been reported in the press over the last several weeks have perhaps put into sharp focus whether or not as a society we have completely departed from the notion of vocation, a noble pursuit of yesteryear. So revered were teachers, for example, that they got the honorary title of “Mwalimu” because everyone knew that they were entrusted with the honourable task of imparting knowledge to young scholars.
Corruption in Kenya is probably the most telling sign of how far off we are in terms of the vocation versus career narrative. Ours is a reflection of the depth of our desperation to “climb” the ladder of prosperity. Is leadership innate or is it something that can be taught? I reckon that it’s a bit of both. It starts with a deep desire for transformation; first of self, then of others. The deep desire to make a difference is what spurred me to take a class on leadership, where I was surprised to see that the first module of the programme was self-leadership because there can be no transformation of others without transformation of self. I didn’t take off to the Himalayas, and I was fortunate enough not to have had to change my chosen field of work. But what did change was my outlook towards the work that I do. It is no longer about how bright my star shines but whose path I light.