It is easily the most common question young people ask me: “What is the secret of your success?”
The problem is I do not regard myself as successful, and I tell that to students right away.
But I understand what is being asked and would then take the inquirer on a discussion that one hopes would encourage, direct and inspire. So this is for you.
To begin with, I see my life as a series of happy accidents.
Great moment to teach a new word, perhaps: serendipity. You feel you were always in the right place and the right time with the right person.
Spiritual people might call those delightful accidents to, in fact, be a consequence of divine steering or influence on your life.
It happens despite yourself. I can relate to that.
However you believe, I have taken some insights from the road travelled so far, and here is my advice.
One, when given an opportunity, take it. If somebody gives you a bursary, make that gift a matter of life or death.
You may never get another chance like this. Do not screw it up.
I have had hundreds of students, now older and unqualified, who carry that remorse daily.
“If only I made the most of the opportunity given to me.”
Too late now, of course.
Once you have wasted a bursary, you are unlikely to get another chance.
There are simply too many students in need waiting for that opportunity.
Two, open your mouth and ask for help. Do not carry your burden alone.
If you do not ask, nobody will know you’re in need.
Knock on doors until you drop, if necessary.
But make your requests known.
You are not the first or last person to have a need – whether that be emotional, financial, nutritional or spiritual.
The truth is, none of us who achieved something in life did that on our own.
We leaned on others to hold us up – fact.
Three, be determinedly ambitious. You are actually much smarter than you think and much smarter than others think you are. I know that even if you do not.
But you live in a society and you come through a school system that keeps telling you how low the bar is you ought to cover, and that expects you to fail.
Remember that professor who told the class how many would be missing from the course by the end of the first semester?
He is a South African, an unfortunate academic.
State boldly to anyone who cares to listen what you want to be one day – dream, for heaven’s sake.
And do not let that false humility of your religious trappings keep you from claiming what you want from life.
Four, drive yourself. Most South Africans are lazy.
It is easy to be socialised into this culture of slowness.
You want to get ahead?
Then get out of bed, set your goals, and drive yourself towards them.
This means making tough choices every day between that late-night party and completing that assignment or doing one more round of preparation for next week’s examination.
If you do not have this discipline and drive, stop reading now. This message is not for you.
Five, drop the victimhood stunt. This country is awash in victims of every class and colour.
We are pathetic, really.
Whites blame blacks for getting their jobs through quotas.
Blacks blame whites for still dominating the job market.
And coloureds blame both those groups for leaving them dangling between not-white-enough and not-black-enough.
Remember that joke? The fact that you are paranoid does not mean they’re not out to get you.
So, instead of looking around to see who is out to shaft you, work on your confidence and your competence and make yourself available for a job or a scholarship.
People can sense when you’re insecure.
Six, surround yourself with people who are better than you.
Your friends set the standard to which you aspire. If all your friends are that complaining, low-energy, blame-the-other-guy type of people, you will become like them.
Choose friends who are smarter than you, more ambitious than you, more driven than you.
It rubs off, you will see.
Seven, expect to mess up. No successful person got to where they did without making mistakes.
What makes them different is that they get up again and again.
When you fall, ask “what did I do wrong?” and then “how can I prevent this from happening again?” and finally “what is the lesson learned?”.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State