Commencement Address 2019
It is a rare privilege to stand here before you as the Commencement Speaker for today’s ceremony. Given how precious an opportunity this is, I promise to be brief and honest.
I don’t have an Ivy League education. No Fortune 500 corporate badge. No million-dollar inheritance. I haven’t sold a start-up for a huge fortune or won any local or global prizes in recognition of my intellect or talent. I don’t have any patents to my name, or any trademarks (yet). I’m not a celebrity nor a politician, nor do I hold a position of authority or influence.
This is the part where you wonder why I’m here. Well, it’s not because of who I am today, but who I aspire to be tomorrow.
I’m evolving and have three personas – remarkably different – but none at conflict, thankfully. I’m an academic at heart, inspired by a mother who devoted over two decades to teach children as if they were her own. I’m a key member of the senior management team in a reputed global consulting firm, where I’ve managed some of Pakistani’s most ambitious reform programmes for education and fiscal policy and am currently leading a world-class team of international legal experts to help reform Pakistan’s criminal justice system. I’m also a serial entrepreneur, as my friends like to call me. Within a span of five years, in partnership with an equally driven friend, I’ve laid the foundation of a conglomerate that will help Pakistanis access a range of services covering wealth management, hospitality and retail. Our vision 2030 is to launch a private air charter service for corporate clients seeking safe, reliable on-demand transportation.
And that’s the key message I hope to share with you all — what makes you special is not who you are at this very moment, but who you aspire to be in the coming weeks, months, years and decades.
Your trajectory matters. It’s the difference between an object at rest, and one in motion. We all know where we are today – best in class or barely struggling – what matters more now is what we plan to do about it.
I’ve had the privilege of benefiting from the company of incredibly gifted friends and professionals – giants in their own right. And I can assure you that they have followed vastly divergent trajectories. The ones who rose higher were those that understood that they were objects in motion, not objects at rest.
My journey to date hasn’t exactly been easy. I was incredibly shy for most of my youth, struggled with math in school, was rejected by most of the colleges and schools I applied to. On a rare occasion, I got a favorable response and scholarship from a reputed Ivy League school, I lacked the resources to cover the remaining gap. For most of my youth, I was convinced I could not manage money nor take on financial responsibility. I never applied for a single internship in college and never attended a single career-fair. Everyone considered me too nerdy to work in a paid job, and I believed them. My first remuneration was for a research assignment in college – I was so embarrassed to be ‘paid’ for research that I considered disposing of the cheque rather than enchasing it. Out in the real world, I switched between 5 employers, from selling phone packages to fertilizer shipments, and a first failed attempt to launch a start-up many years ago. Some considered me to be too sporadic, and even noncommittal. I nearly believed them.
But for all the apparent setbacks in life, none were able to set me back. I was searching for myself.
And over the years I have found myself and understood who I am. I’m an unabashed late bloomer, and maybe that’s what helped me go further than most of my peers. No false sense of entitlement or privilege.
Over the years I have learnt that the best brand to believe in is your own. If you have a strong personal brand, you will never feel uncomfortable in your skin. You will relish your personal and professional identity, based on principles you hold dear and will never trade or compromise.
Success has different definitions for different persons, but it is common fact that success is not attained by cheating people, stealing from them or deceiving them. Success is not attained by holding a friend back or hoodwinking a colleague. Success is not attained by relishing in the failure of a rival or bathing in the afterglow of another person’s success.
Instead, work on yourself.
You’re all privileged to have a fantastic education. You have a ‘Headstart’ on life. But as you step out into the world, ask yourself two questions:
Where am I headed?
And how will I get there?
The former is a question of ambition. The latter is a personal question – a question of character.
And if you must consider another person as your benchmark for success, make sure it’s their journey and not their destination that solely attracts you. Know their entire story, not just the tip of the iceberg.
Social constructs of success are ever-changing and, in most cases, deceptive. If you follow a person’s social media profile, you’ll be convinced everyone is rich, good-looking and brilliant, and that you’re the outlier. I’ve known this long before social media was the rage – back in college, I called it the ‘myth effect’ — the less you know about a person’s true life, and the more you rely on rumor and opinion, the more extraordinary and superhuman this person appears to us. Soon enough, we start idolizing the person in question, while feeling inept or incapable.
Instead, I encourage you to picture your own success.
Visualise it regularly. You should be able to close your eyes and reach out to it. It should feel tangible, real and most importantly, it should be you. Put a date on it. Give it a name. Imagine how you would feel on that day. Make it your dream. Work towards it with passion, commitment and vigour. Don’t ever consider any task beneath you in this journey, there is dignity and respect in all work as long as it doesn’t steal the dignity and respect of others.
You are your real competition. You are your own scorecard. You are your own judge.
This mindset will take you much further than any other. It will help you scale mountains effortlessly, one step at a time.
If you’re worried about metrics for success, I’ve got some bad news, and some good news.
The bad news is that they do exist. The good news is that the same metrics won’t exist tomorrow.
And that’s life. Today your center-stage, and tomorrow you’re barely surviving. And then you’re back again, relishing your resurgence. Life ebbs and flows, and so does success. Today it’s the number of As you’ve earned, tomorrow it’ll be your GPA, the day after it’ll be your dissertation and soon enough you’ll be counting the number of zeros in your pay cheque. For some, it may even be the number of followers on their Twitter, Facebook or Youtube channel.
As someone who was in your exact shoes 16 years to this day, I can tell you this much:
I felt incredibly grateful for where I was then and incredibly grateful for where I am now. I never sought shortcuts.
This is the mantra that worked and continues to work for me. If you find yourself in a place of darkness, fear not, as these are merely shadows cast by the mountains of success in your midst.
Get the journey right, keep moving and your ultimate destination will reveal itself. I cannot emphasize enough to keep moving. Success and greatness do not come from comfort zones. So – continue to grow: in character, in your life path, and in the value, you bring to those around you.
And I can promise you, you won’t be disappointed.
As for myself, I stand before you today in what is certainly my proudest moment. Proud of the fact that we are all gathered here today not because of who we are today, but who we will be tomorrow.
Best Regards to the management of Headstart school and the faculty. May they continue to educate and nurture the next generation of talented Pakistanis.