At the beginning of my third year at Macalester College (in Minnesota, USA), a young woman from Zimbabwe arrived with the new crop of international students. She was very talkative, animated, extremely opinionated, and passionate about everything African. We argued about a lot of things and immediately struck a friendship. She became like my little sister and I would mentor her as time went by.
She was very passionate about theater, and kept acting in plays on campus. I attended a few of her early performances, which didn’t impress me much. In fact, on one occasion, I walked out of a play she was in because I couldn’t understand the weird plot and thought my time would be better spent on some homework.
She eventually decided to major in theater, something I vehemently advised her against. I told her that it was an absolute waste of time, and that she should study a ‘real’ subject like economics (as I was doing). I told her she would go the way of other ‘starving artists’ once she graduated—unemployed with nothing but dashed dreams. As far as I knew, Africans just did not have careers in the arts.
After I graduated from college, I started my jet-setting career as a McKinsey consultant, while my poor ‘little sister’ continued down her doomed path. Why didn’t she listen to me, I wondered? Couldn’t she see this was the path to unemployment? The following year, she graduated with her degree in theater and moved to New York to study a Master’s degree in theater and to try acting off Broadway.
We loosely stayed in touch. Then, 4 years later, I was flipping through TV channels in my hotel room on a business trip in New York. Who, to my major surprise, did I see playing a minor role in an episode of ‘Law and Order’, than this woman? She had actually found a somewhat respectable job! I called her, and we went out to dinner to catch up. She filled me in on the play she had just written, about a woman in South Africa who was living with HIV-AIDS, and which would soon start running in New York.
Her career kept rising. Her first play went on a world tour. Her second play won many awards. Next, she began acting in small independent movies, and she later landed a major role in one of the most popular TV Series in the world.
Two weeks ago, this old friend of mine invited me to a movie premiere in Johannesburg as her VIP guest. I watched with pride as she came on stage for a brief interview before we watched the movie. I then joined her for dinner afterwards with the movie’s cast.
This ‘little sister’ of mine, whose acting career I didn’t believe in 22 years ago was none other than Danai Gurira, and I was one of the first people in the world to watch what is likely to be one of the most successful movies of all time—Black Panther—as her guest. I smiled as she casually introduced me to her own, Oscar-winning ‘little sister’ Lupita N’yongo, her co-star in Black Panther. We laughed and caught up about old times when we were in college and when I used to buy her lunch as a struggling actress in New York. She’s still as opinionated and passionate as she was when I met her at the age of 18.
I’ve been apologizing to Danai for the last 15 years for not believing in her all those years ago.
The experience of not supporting Danai’s in her dream when we were younger taught me a very powerful lesson—one that has shaped my life’s work for the last 14 years: Every single one of us has unique passions, talents, and destinies. We should never belittle someone’s dreams as unrealistic, and should never try to define what someone else should be. In my work today, I am on a quest to identify young talented ‘stars’ in various fields across Africa, and to give them a platform to fly. 3 million stars over the next 50 years to be precise. But I never, ever now tell them what they should be or do. I offer them one major piece of advice: “follow your passion. Don’t give up until you achieve your dream. Only surround yourself with positive energy, and remove those with negative energy from your life”.
When someone share’s their dream with you, do you encourage them or discourage them as foolish? Are you a dream killer? If you are a parent, are you truly listening to your child and giving them space to pursue their own passions, or are you trying to impose your own passions on them? What would happen if schools all around the world gave children the right to dream again? How much talent would we unleash onto the world? How much could this change the world?