Frustrated, discouraged, discontented and disheartened.
Those adjectives capture how I felt about my life twenty years ago in 1997. Here is how I had come to this point. I had graduated from the University of Nairobi in August of 1992 (I know, I am old!). Soon thereafter, I interviewed with the Public Service Commission (PSC). To my surprise, I was posted to the then ministry of research and technology. There was a newly created office, Kenya Industrial Property Office, which was mandated with administration of several industrial properties, including trademarks and patents. I was hired as an Examination Officer. Great! Now I had a job! Let’s get on with it and climb that career ladder, right? Except there was no ladder.
Civil service careers were (still are, I guess) managed under schemes of service. A scheme of service provides career structure and standards for career advancement. I do not know if that is the case anymore, but one was eligible for promotion after a number of years of service. The problem with the newly created office was that it did not have a scheme of service. Our job titles were ‘new’ and did not fall under existing schemes of service. Our bosses promised that this could be fixed by developing a new scheme. We were naïve enough to believe that that was going to happen. It never happened. People started to look for jobs in the private sector and quite a number resigned.
I tried looking for a job and received several regrets. I filed them in a file that I have kept to this day. I envisioned a day in future when I would no longer be in need of a job. I would open the file and read through the regrets and chuckle. I have not done that – but it was a nice thought at the time.
The office was not busy. Intellectual property protection was still relatively unknown and or unappreciated in Kenya. There was not a whole lot of inventors filing patents applications or manufacturers seeking trademark protection. We nevertheless kept the 8 am to 5 pm working hours – at least most of us did. Eight hours in the office is a long time when you are not busy. We did not have computers, so solitaire and Pac-Man were out of question. Occasionally, someone brought a newspaper which was shared by everyone. We read it from the first page, through the obituaries and horoscopes (you never know when your star might say something like ‘you will get a pay rise today’), sports, to the classified ads (as if you are looking for a plot or a car!)
Public service offices have this one person who is as well-known as the Managing Director, but a lot more popular. That is the man or woman who sells mandazis, samosas, groundnuts or chapos. Richard was that person for us. He made tea for the office and sold mandazis and groundnuts as a side hustle. He was a saviour especially during that last week before payday. He let you have mandazis and groundnuts on credit. He was a happy man on payday.
No amount of mandazis and groundnuts would, however, obliterate the sense of hopelessness that slowly burrowed its way into my mind. Here I was, more than five years into the job. I had the same title, same job group, same salary which barely saw me from one end-month to another. What more, I had no expectation that that was going to change any time soon. I become increasingly negative and all I could talk about was how miserable I was to be stuck in this situation. I felt trapped.
Then one day in 1997, a friend of mine gave me a book – The Power of Positive Thinking. I don’t know what prompted him to give me the book – he may have had enough of my negativity and wanted to help. Or perhaps it was an act of self-preservation on his part. Negative people are energy thieves who rob you of every joule you have. He may have been worried about his energy stocks!
Up to that point, I had never heard of the writer, Norman Vincent Peale, nor of his book which was and still an international best seller. I read the first few pages and could not keep the book down. I soaked it all in like a sponge. I do not remember much of the book (I have not read it since), but I recall having a mind shift: I was no longer a victim drifting through life and letting life happen to me. I had the power to change my life. But to do so, I had to believe in me. To believe that I could. The phrase that stood out for me was ‘knock out the ‘t’ in the word can’t’, or something along those lines.
And knocking the ‘t’ I did. When January of 1998 came, I was rearing and ready to go. For the first time, I believed that I could turn my life around. I submitted an application for a master’s program in the U.S., something that I would not have done before. I had previously toyed with the idea of applying to the same university. I gave up based on the amount of money I would require for living expenses and tuition, a total of $39K. I could not raise the application fee of $ 50 which was almost half my salary at the time! But this was the new me, who believed in me. So armed with nothing more than a new positive attitude, I took action. I borrowed the $ 50 application fee from a friend, completed my application paperwork and submitted it. I requested for a fee waiver of a substantial amount on tuition. To my pleasant surprise, I got a full tuition fee waiver. I subsequently secured a sponsorship for all other expenses including living expenses, books and air ticket. In August of the same year, I started my masters’ program.
As it turned out, what stood between me and the master’s degree was not $39,000; it was a negative attitude.
I have read many books since then focused on the same subject as Norman Vincent’s book. I have sat in conferences and listened to countless speakers and life coaches speak on related subjects. It is easy for me to take this seemingly simple principle for granted. I can’t help but wonder though how many people are held back, not by lack of opportunity or resources, but by that “t” in the word “can’t”.5