A leader is remembered not by what he or she possessed or consumed, not by how much power they had or whether they were charming or beautiful, but by the legacy they leave behind. This is what I want to talk to you about; leaving a legacy.
I want to start by saying two things to you which I want you to remember.
The first one is:
1. “It is in the nature of extraordinary goals to inspire extraordinary effort.”
The second one is:
2. “It is in the nature of the ‘dream’ to be impractical.”
A practical dream is an oxymoron.
I want you to remember these two things because I am going to tell you three stories about three people who believed in extraordinary goals and had impractical dreams. To tell stories is a good way to learn, no? Okay here goes.
The first story is about a man who bought a train ticket for the First Class and got into the compartment. But as he was sitting there, a strange thing happened. The Guard came and threw him out of the compartment. Actually, physically threw him out onto the platform. As the man picked himself up from the ground, a dream was born; the dream to set his people free from slavery.
But remember, the dream to set his nation free was born when the man could not even guarantee his own freedom. A very impractical dream. A very extraordinary goal.
The second story is about another man who sat in a prison for 27 years. I have seen that prison. It is a prison on a rock in the middle of the ocean. A rock that is surrounded by the sea which has some of the largest sharks in the world. That nation has the most sophisticated shark repellent technology in the world. You know why? Because they have the biggest sharks. This man sat in that prison without any hope of ever escaping. A lot of the time in solitary confinement. And in that situation he had a dream. The dream was to set his people free from the apartheid which enslaved them in their own land. Once again, a very impractical dream. A very extraordinary goal.
The third story is about another man. This man, when he was young, had a sporting accident in which he lost the use of both his legs and his eyesight was also affected. He was, since then confined to a wheelchair. Then what did he do? He went to get an education in one of the most venerable universities in the world. After he became a scholar, he went back to his people, where he became a refugee in his own land because the invaders and occupiers of his land destroyed his home along with the homes of thousands of others. All his life there, he worked to help his people in their misery to bring some measure of relief to them through medical aid, social help, food, emotional support and by teaching them to fight for their rights.
For this service, he was imprisoned for many years by the invaders and spent time in some of the most horrific prisons in the world. And all the while he had a dream; to set his people free and to have their land returned to them.
Then finally, at the age of 67, on March 22, 2004 while he was returning home from the morning prayers in the masjid, he was murdered by the invaders and joined the honorable list of martyrs.
As we stand here today, there does not seem to be any chance of his dream ever coming true. But he dreamt and others share that dream. The man died but the dream lives because dreamers die but dreams live on as long as there is someone to dream that dream. Once again an impractical dream. An extraordinary goal which inspires extraordinary effort.
The first question I want to ask you after telling you these true stories is:
What is your dream?
In order to make dreams come true we need perspective.
Perspective is the ability to hold two pictures in your mind: Where you are now and where you want to be. The positive tension between these two pictures will drive you to reach where you need to be.
Without perspective we are either stuck in the current reality and get frustrated or we have our heads in the clouds and no idea of how to realize what we want to achieve.
We all start in the same place….as children. What does that mean? It means that at least initially, our condition depends on others who take care of us. So we get conditioned to look to them to ‘make us’ happy. And when that does not happen, we blame them.
This leads to the mental model: “Someone else is responsible for my welfare. My role is to feel good or bad about what the other person does. If I am happy, I laugh. If not, I sulk.”
Strangely, many people get stuck in this mental model even when they grow up physically and are in charge of their own affairs and have the power to do things for themselves. Because to grow up, means to take responsibility. To take ownership for all that you say and do and its effect on others and on the world. Not merely to accept accountability but to actively seek it. To stand up and say, “Here I am. You can count on me.” And if things go wrong, as sometimes they will, to say, “I am responsible for what has happened. Here is what I learnt from this. And this is how we will ensure this never happens again.” Most people fear this intensely.
So they are all ready to talk about freedom, but will not actually work to become free.
There is great safety and solace in slavery, in never growing up. In being a ‘child’ all your life. And you can see so many 50 and 60 year old children. There is much to fear in freedom. Emotional Maturity is therefore not a factor of age of the body but the maturity of the mind.
This voluntary slavery of the mind is not only found in individuals but in organizations, societies and countries. Often among those that are very rich and powerful but choose to be helpless and blame others for what happens to them. They refuse to see that their happiness lies in their own hands. That they can be free of this mental bondage, if they choose.
So my next question to you is:
Do you really want to be free?
What is the key word in that question? Yes, that’s right. It is ‘really’ Do you REALLY want to be free?
Freedom, if you really want it, comes with some choices that you have to make: And these are:
- To care more than others think is wise
- To risk more than others think is safe
- To dream more than others think is practical
- To expect more (from yourself) than others think is possible
My dear brothers and sisters, we all start in the same place in another way. We all start as idealists. I have yet to see a child who was not an idealist. We all want to make a difference to the world we live in, to do great things and to be remembered. But how many people actually achieve that? And why not?
Let’s see what happens and why.
We all start as Idealists. Then life happens. Things happen where people let us down. Often the very people we counted on to support us. People deceive and lie and cheat and sacrifice long term benefits for short term gains. They are corrupt and this and that and the other. So as all these things happen, we get onto the slide and start sliding downwards.
From being Idealists, we become Optimists (because idealism is tough to put down, especially when you are young and energetic) and then we become Realists, than Pessimists. Along the way we acquire ‘advisors’; people with lots of ‘education’; who take us aside to ‘talk some sense’ into us. They tell us, “Look, don’t be a fool. Get real. This is the real world. Be practical. Be realistic. Ideals are okay to talk about. They don’t work and will get you into trouble. Forget all this. Look around you. How many people do you see actually working for ‘ideals’?”
We say, “But look at what Yawar is saying!! What about that?”
Our advisor will say, “Let him talk. What does it matter? That is his job. He is a teacher and trainer. Let him talk. You eat the nice snacks, meet your friends, have a nice time and go home. Forget him. Forget what he says.”
And slowly – if we choose and only if we choose – we also become like our ‘advisors’. We become Cynics.
From Idealist to Optimist to Realist to Pessimist to Cynic; on the slide.
Cynics are very popular at parties as they are witty and make cynical remarks and make people laugh. But cynicism is a cancer. It eats the soul from inside. And unlike cancer, it is contagious and spreads.
And in the end, at the bottom of the pile, we become Indifferent. We stop caring what happens. That is the real bottom of the pit.
But remember one thing – all this will happen only if you choose to allow it to happen. It is your choice and you are completely in control of it.
You know why people get angry and fight you when you say idealistic things? Because you remind them of what they were one day. The flame of idealism is possible to dampen. But it is impossible to kill. It will remain alive as long as we live. It dies when we die.
That is the reason people oppose idealists at first. Because when people who have allowed themselves to become cynical and indifferent meet you as an idealist, you remind them of what they were like, long ago. In your eyes they see a glimpse of their own history and that frightens them. They hate what they chose to do to themselves. They hate the picture of themselves that they see in your eyes. All this while you are not aware of what is going on and you think they are opposing you. But they are not. They are fighting with themselves. They believe that if they can make you shut up, then somehow all will be well. Because they are one of the many who believe this fallacy, that if one can make someone who speaks the truth to shut up; then one can remain comfortable in one’s falsehood. They refuse to face the reality that the truth is the truth even if no one speaks it.
The thing to do therefore, if you want to light the lamps of other’s idealism, is to ensure that your own lamp never goes dim. The way to do that is never to lower your ideals in the name of expedience, or diplomacy or Hikma. By all means use your wisdom and skill in putting across your ideals in as convincing and acceptable a way as you can, but never lower the standard. For the standard is our only protection against the slide into mediocrity and oblivion.
Remember that no person or nation lives forever. But their thoughts, their goals, their ideals and what they stood for endures long after they have become dust. That is what we stand for; ideals that have stood the test of time and which we carry forward to generations who will come, long after we have gone.
In 1997, a man used to stand outside the White House holding a lighted candle in his hand, a silent protest against the US sanctions against Iraq. He would turn up there every evening and would stand there for a few hours well into the night.
One evening, it was wet, windy and very cold. As usual the man came, wearing a coat with the collar turned up against the bitter cold, and an umbrella to shelter the tiny flame of his candle from the blustery wind.
As he stood there, the guard at the gate, who used to see him every day and occasionally waved to him in friendly camaraderie, came out to him and said, “Man! I know you are committed to this cause. But look at this night! It is so cold and horrible; you are one man, standing here alone, do you think you can change them?”
The man looked at the guard and smiled. “I don’t do this to change them,” he said, “I do this so that they will not change me.”
Much has happened since 1997 and history has been written in words of shame by the blood of innocents. However there is one man somewhere who still believes in justice and mercy and that truth will eventually prevail over falsehood. That is his legacy. The legacy of a man whose name we don’t know. But his story inspires others. We need such people more than we need those who have the power and use it only for oppression.
I say to you that I am a shameless idealist. I have always been and would like to remain this way until the end of my days. And if I ever start to slip, as can happen to the strongest of us, then I want you to remind me of what I am saying to you today.
So the next question I want to ask you is:
What are your ideals?
Finally I want to close my speech by telling you another true story. This one is about a little boy and the famous writer Loren Eisely. Loren writes that he was on holiday by the sea side when one night there was a big storm. Very early next morning as he was walking on the beach he saw that among the debris of the storm were literally hundreds of starfish which had been thrown up on the sand the previous night. As he walked along, Loren saw someone in the distance doing what looked to him, like a dance. The person was bending down and standing up and moving along as he did this. As Loren neared him, he saw that it was a little boy who was picking up starfish from the beach and was throwing them back into the sea.
Loren was like me. A man of the world with a lot of education and life experience.
He went up to the boy and asked, “What are you doing?”
The boy said, “I’m throwing these starfish back into the sea so that they don’t die. They can’t move on the sand and if the sun comes out, they will dry out and die. So I am throwing them back so that they will live.”
Loren says, he laughed at this statement. He then proceeded to put things in ‘perspective’ for the boy. Remember, I told you the importance of having perspective? But there’s perspective and there’s perspective.
So Loren said to him, “Look, do you realize that on this beach alone there are literally thousands of starfish? And then of course there are hundreds of beaches in the world, on which are thrown up millions of starfish in every storm. You are one kid, throwing one starfish into the sea! For God’s sake, what difference does it make?”
The boy looked at Loren; he looked at the starfish in his hand, he turned and threw it far into the waves and said to Loren, “It made a difference to that one!”
Loren writes, “I walked away and kept walking for a long time. Then I returned to the boy who was still there, picking up and throwing the starfish into the sea. I silently picked up a starfish and threw it into the sea. And we did this together for a long time.”
My final question to you is:
What difference do you want to make?