Whenever I tell my friends what I’ve been doing since graduating in December, it usually comes as a bit of a surprise. I can only assume the surprise comes from the fact that I started an apparel company called Bora Wear that gives part of its proceeds to an orphanage for HIV+ children called TOTO Love even though: 1) I never spoke about entrepreneurship as a potential career option and 2) I wasn’t a Fiber Science and Apparel design major. And I completely understand where this confusion comes from because they don’t see my underlying passion and vision. Simply put, I want to make Africa a better place.
I grew up in Kenya for half my life, with my family moving to the States in 2001. I was awestruck by how much better life in America was. The people definitely weren’t better but the convenience, the scale and the order of America was mind boggling. It was then that I decided that my goal would be to make Africa a better place. Entering Cornell as a Civil Engineer, at the suggestion of my father, I saw myself radically altering the infrastructure of the continent, moving toward my inevitable Nobel Prize. Despite these lofty ambitions, I soon came to the realization that engineering wasn’t for me. This college was supposed to be the most practical, yet I wasn’t seeing the applicability of the integral of sin(x) to the street children in Nairobi. You can call me naïve or a “Quitter!,” as my Engineering friends do, but I needed something else that better served my passion.
Even if you don’t find my story that interesting or compelling, studies have shown that passion makes a difference in success. In 1869, Sir Francis Galton published the first social scientific study that analyzed genius and greatness. Galton collected biographical information on eminent judges, statesmen, scientists, poets, musicians, painters, wrestlers and many others. Ability, he concluded, was not equal to success; instead, he claimed achievers were triply blessed by “ability combined with zeal and with capacity for hard labor.” In Developing Talent in Young People, Benjamin Bloom looked at the development of world-class pianists, neurologists, swimmers, chess players, mathematicians and sculptors. Bloom found that the general characteristics of success were a strong interest in the area, a desire to achieve “a high level of attainment” in a chosen area and a “willingness to put in great amounts of time and effort.” In their study Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals, Duckworth et al wanted to answer the question why some individuals accomplish more than others of equal intelligence? Across six studies, these researchers found that grit, “working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress,” accounted for significant impact on success outcomes “over and beyond that explained by IQ.” Cornell is awash with hard workers and talented people, but those two traits mean nothing without some underlying passion.
I know every Cornellian wants to be a success. I know you want to graduate from this university and make some indelible mark on this planet. But if you are not following some passion or interest, then you are lowering your chances to succeed. Just to be clear, wanting more money isn’t the kind of passion discussed here. We are talking about a drive that gets you out of bed and you never stop thinking about. We are talking about you being on the edge of financial ruin and still moving forward. We are talking about being happy and enjoying every moment of your tumultuous journey. If your interests and your trajectory don’t line up, why are you doing it? Why are you making yourself suffer? Why are you resigning yourself to a life of unhappiness? With a profound attachment to your goal, you will find any way to get around the inevitable barriers that will arise. Without that passion, it becomes that much easier to give up and live a life of mediocrity.
I didn’t apply to a single job, much to the chagrin of my father. Admittedly, I had no idea how to be an entrepreneur. If it wasn’t for Dan Cohen, and the entrepreneurship Lab (the business incubator at Cornell), I don’t think I would have fully pursued Bora Wear. But this business is all about my passion and my vision. The beauty of someone purchasing something at borawear.com is that it isn’t just about the unique clothes, but it is about the fabrics we use and the textile jobs that we create, it is the smiling faces we will bring to the children at TOTO Love, and ultimately it will be the jobs we create when we open a factory in Kenya and start producing things there.
Don’t just follow the crowd. Don’t just look for the biggest paycheck. Don’t just compromise your beliefs and values. Do something that you care about. Do it because you want to be successful. Do it because you want to be fulfilled. Do it because when you succeed you will be leading a life that you will be proud of. And isn’t that worth the struggle?
James Muna graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences this December. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.