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The 13th Lesson - Every day is graduation day.

This is an extract of a talk that was delivered as the Commencement speech at Eduvos South Africa on the 26th April 2022


The one I meant to give, but couldnt get my iPad to open so the audience got a version of this. That and my hat kept falling off my bald head. I don't know if there was a lesson there? In the spirit of getting back into telling stories often, candidly, authentically and vulnerably, here is the 13th lesson.


 

Sawubona, Dumelang. Good morning to esteemed guests, faculty and students. It is an honor to be with you this fine day.


Today is Tuesday the 26th of April 2022. Take a moment to digest that. This is an important day in your lives. Take in the weather – indications are that the next ten days will be very cold. For those of you like me, for whom isiZulu is not your native tongue, the significance of my first word Sawubona is a greeting. Like many greetings on this continent, translated this means “we see you”. Turn to your right and look at the person sitting next to you and if there’s nobody on your right, turn to your left. I invite you to say the word – sawubona. And for those of you unfamiliar with this word, the appropriate response is, yebo Sawubona. Yes – I see you.


As I prepared for this day and this honor of speaking to you, I wondered what I could possibly share. To be honest it felt like preparing for an exam. I was researching Commencement Speeches, and talking to friends and family and asking the question what do you tell a graduand in 2022? I mean let’s be honest. You have lived through 749 days of lockdown, Elon Musk bidding for and getting the nod to buy out twitter, Putin invading Ukraine and getting the European Union agreeing to trade for oil in Rubles, Kagame opening borders for global refugees, and Busi Mavuso taking on SCOPA and that’s just current affairs for April 2022!


What on earth do I say to a generation that is interacting daily with new content and enlightenment? If it’s not on google yet does it exist?


I must confess, I never attended my first graduation so it is exciting for me to be present at a graduation. Education is clearly addictive – you are all proof of that - as I am certain that you’ve been at this school gig for more than 12 years cumulatively and each year you are registering for more! For some of you, this is one of a series of graduations from academic places of learning.


And let’s face it, it has its perks. Each one of you here will be taking home a personalized scroll today. Inside is an important document which you will be presenting frequently to gain access to esteemed places of employment and deployment . Many will hang it on the wall as a proud image of your accomplishment. And indeed what an accomplishment coming this far is, so by all means, celebrate it. It is perhaps one of the most treasured autographs we carry with us wherever we go.


As I wracked my mind for the key note message for today, It occurred to me that perhaps the one thing I could share with you is what I call my 13th Lesson. The message that “Every day is graduation day”.


I first wrote the words “every day is graduation day” at the age of 35. According to my notes, this was on the 29th of February 2012. My sixth year of being an entrepreneur. It’s not a lie when they tell you that there are two schools, academia and the school of life. My graduation days have fortunately graced both esteemed institutions of learning, and my one greatest lament is that the school that keeps on giving is the one which doesn’t carry a certificate with an autograph that opens doors to prestigious environments or guarantees monthly royalties in the form of pay checks.


As a foreword to 13 chapters of thought I wrote:


After years of rebelliously resisting, at the age of 35 I forayed into self help books and I don’t even recall what made me go there. I was always intrigued till about page twenty by which time there is a clear message of how following XY and Z’s method has resulted in such great success or results. That is when I lose interest. I have a problem with the one true answer approach to life. I always have.


My friends on the other hand are firm believers in self help books. Get rich yesterday, lose weight for tomorrow, never be single again, the list is endless. I work with the simple notion that what I have and where I am at is exactly where I need to be. There is no great preparation and emotional journey that I need to walk to experience the best that life has to offer. What I have is enough, and I’ve got what it takes to go where I need to go.


We are continuously bombarded with communication on how inadequate we are, continuously striving for this ‘more’ that ensures that we are perpetually disillusioned and guaranteed not to appreciate exactly what we have in the first place.


I know I don’t know it all. I also don’t believe Peter, Mary or whoever wrote the book has “the formula” that I can just read through and apply to my life. If there’s one thing I can say, it’s that neither should you. Standing here before you is one person who has walked her own journey experienced her own realities and has chosen to use personal experiences and story as a way of interacting with thoughts.


The 13th Lesson was written in a moment of inspiration, an attempt to sanitise what I was really wanting to write. For the record the initial title was Business Suits and G-Strings – a woman entrepreneurs real account of lessons from the trenches. Because Wow! The truth was stranger than fiction! I was in a politically correct phase of my life and The 13th Lesson felt like a better title.



The Graduation

I attended my first graduation ceremony ever, 7 years after enrolling for my Masters. I was feeling on top of the world for the academic achievement, and simultaneously experiencing flames from being in business. There are some of you who understand that those two realities can co-exist and I’m sure you are nodding your heads right now thinking of your own life situations where this has held true! For those that don’t I’ll share one story that illuminates the essence of the 13th Lesson for me.


I enrolled for my masters degree in 2002 and was accepted early 2003, however the notification came late and I was asked to join the 2004 January intake. This was fantastic, I was ecstatic. I could see myself with the title MBA at the end of my name and in my minds eye, that would be the beginning of a lifetime of success. When my MBA began in January 2004, I was 36 weeks pregnant. I had been diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidurum and pregnancy diabetes, which meant that I spent a lot of time in hospital. The MBA was my dream so you can imagine me stubbornly wanting to continue while physically not really being up to it. I attended class for the first block release before conceding that nature was more stubborn than me. The university was accommodating and allowed me to postpone for 8 weeks to join the April intake. My daughter was born on the 20th of February and I was back in class in early April. In hindsight I know that what I call stubbornness today, was one of the defining features of my commitment to get my own way. But that’s not the story I want to tell.


In 2004, maternity leave was not paid in full by the company and I was on part payment so getting back to work was critical as I could not afford to be off while unpaid. I went back to work with a 6 week old child, and had started an MBA.


My MBA was in my mind still the key to my future. But I wanted to be smart about it. I just wanted the piece of paper. That magic autograph that opened doors. I decided early on that I would take the easiest electives that didn’t have exams so that I could get decent marks. After all, after a while all they want to see is the certificate.


I got back to a job where my boss had changed his mind about the management structure and my career path was uncertain. For the 3rd time in my life I made a career move, this time out of banking and into the world of consulting. Where my salary doubled, I can assure you my confidence trebled. I started a beauty business, was doing my MBA, overseeing consulting as a principal consultant in an engineering firm, and was working on starting my own company. All the core course content on the MBA was complete and I had just the research element to do. Then the wheels of the bus started to come undone. The company I worked with felt that my efforts to start my own consultancy unacceptable and I got dismissed, the hair and beauty business was in infancy and did not have cashflow to continue and I had to shut it down, the management consultancy I had been dreaming of became a reality overnight. I had unexpectedly and overnight graduated into being a full time business owner and manager. And I was not ready. Nothing in my MBA, including the elective on entrepreneurship prepared me to be an owner manager with no cushion of a guaranteed salary and no real plan of making the business work. As far as life lessons go, that was perhaps one of the steepest curves of my career. Where before I had focused to the minute detail of the business card, I had to focus my attention on the challenging skill of making a sale. As a 20 something year old MD of a project management and advisory firm, I learnt the reality that my skills were very attractive on a business card with a large firm and were considered shady and unreliable on my carefully designed and even more beautiful business cards. Networking took a very different slant when the introduction did not have a large financial services company, audit firm or engineering advisory and was just me introducing me. I graduated from an elevated sense of entitlement borne of institutional titles to humility enforced by an external definition of perceived value, to a personal drive to define value for myself on my terms.


Life was giving me a front row seat to a masterclass about power and authority, distinguishing for me in living color the difference between fancy job titles like Director and Executive Manager and real authority to commission and sign contracts – I warn you for free that these things are not synonymous. This is one ongoing masterclass I must confess, as the titled have a tendency to misrepresent their authority. If you have the opportunity to graduate from a class, this is one I recommend you enrol in quickly as it has many refresher continuous professional development requirements. It’s a course that should be taken with the lifetime programme on influence, relationships and negotiation skills. Even when you graduate one year, the next year they change the scenarios and examine you again!


Before I knew it, 4 years had gone by and I hadn’t completed my MBA. The year was 2010 and I got a love letter from the university. If I didn’t complete the MBA research element I would not be able to graduate and should I wish to do the MBA would have to start all over again. It took a love letter to remind me of my own dream. I wrote back to the University with my own version of a love letter. I wrote about the story of the 4 years between core course content and my current situation. In that time I had become a mother to another young girl with even more severe pregnancy complications than the first and I had kicked off what was a successful business. It is not empty words I share when I say I am a storyteller, as I was granted a 6 month extension. A new unbelievable opportunity to graduate.


I had one challenge. The research I had started years before was based on a corporate setting and I was now fully immersed in the life of an entrepreneur. I rewrote my research confidently submitted it and 3 weeks before my 6 months deadline was up, at the beginning of December 2010, I sat in a room and got the feedback that my submission was not acceptable or up to standard. I recall breaking down and crying in disbelief. I could see this lifetime vision of a valuable autographed piece of paper slipping away. I don’t know if it was my obvious dejection or a miraculous belief in me, that the evaluation committee offered me a final olive branch. If I could submit a rewrite by the end of December they would sit and review my submission. We had a family holiday at the Kruger National Park that year. One of very few holidays we have experienced as a family. I carried my laptop. As the family woke up to game drives, I woke up to do my research. I read and wrote and read and wrote every day for 3 weeks.


In my wisdom I had chosen to write about storytelling in organisations. I ended up writing about storytelling by African women entrepreneurs. It had started out from a place of curiosity, then a choice to pursue what I believed would be easy. Trust me by December 2010, I knew the joke was on me. There was nothing easy about it.


3 months later, I attended my first graduation ceremony. It was mine. I walked on stage and got a wonderful tube that I took pictures with. Finally! Can you imagine my disappointment to find an empty scroll? I had no idea that they posted the real certificate to you later. After getting over that reality, I made sure that the world gets to hear that I have an MBA! I am a graduate. I have this wonderful piece of paper. The greatest irony perhaps is that the immersion into the field of storytelling has shaped my career for the last 12 years. A great and deep understanding of the art, science and application of storytelling in the world of engagement and work.


I also know that the journey to that one graduation that I finally attended in 2011, was not about a piece of paper. It was the key to what I term my 13th Lesson. That every day is graduation day. It was about the many moments of graduating from one level of knowledge, understanding and maturity to the next. That distinction I got from distilling teachings to practice in real life situations. That appreciation of the marvel of learning as an ongoing experience.


There is an African saying which goes “it takes a village to raise a child”. The village is a metaphor for our country. The people standing around you are your tribesmen, women and gender non confirming persons. Our country needs you. It needs you to be the custodians of tomorrow. Take time to really see those around you. In 10 years time these faces around you represent heads of institutions, decision makers and game changers.


If your graduation today represents the mastering of fundamental lessons, what is your 13th Lesson equivalent?


Sawubona – I see you. All of you who carry for us the heart of our identity, the soul of the possibility of this nation. Sawubona, an acknowledgement of our collective co-existence and humanity. And as you leave this hall today we say hambani gahle. Safari njema. Go well. Safe Travels. May your road be long, may your mission be fruitful and may your tribe meet you again some day.


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