Columnists Features

Make the best of every opportunity

I AM writing this article while in Cape Town, South Africa, within sight of the famous Table Mountain – beyond which lies the equally famous Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent more than two decades as a political prisoner.

Thinking about the island prison makes me remember that Mandela, like Barack Obama, delivered one speech that completely changed the trajectory of his life and set him on the path to his destiny.

For Obama, the speech that changed his life was the one he delivered in July 2004 at the Boston Democratic National Convention.
For Mandela, it was the speech he delivered in the Pretoria Supreme Court on 20 April 1964 during the Rivonia Trial.
Last week I focused on Barack Obama’s speech and the fact that it is an opportunity that came his way in an unexpected manner, but that he made the most out of it.
He knew it was a big moment. He prepared thoroughly for the occasion, writing and rewriting his speech until he had fine-tuned it enough to feel confident delivering it.
And what a delivery it turned out to be! The speech set the stage for Obama’s rise to the American presidency.
There are some similarities with the Mandela treason trial speech. While the lawyers expected him and his fellow accused members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), to deny the charge of treason, they decided to admit the charge and then take the opportunity to state their case:
“…We felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy.”
He concluded his courtroom speech with the now-famous words: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.
I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.
It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela’s speech threw him into the limelight – not just nationally but, more importantly, internationally, enabling the international community to get a better understanding of the evils of apartheid.
Mandela knew that the world was watching and listening, and he made the best out of the opportunity.
There are some important lessons on destiny here. First, the fact that there are opportunities that come our way once and yet have a major impact on our destiny.
Second, when such opportunities come, we should make the most of them by doing our best. Can you look back at your life and point, perhaps, at one particular opportunity that changed the direction of your life, either positively or negatively?
Game-changing opportunities will either make or break you: if you do your best, they will build you; but if your output is mediocre, they may close doors for you or kill your dream.
If Obama had stepped onto the Boston stage unprepared, if he had done a bad job of delivering the speech, he might not have been considered to have the potential to be president.
If Mandela had not delivered the treason trial speech the way he did, the outcome might have been different, with no real national and international impact.
When you are given an opportunity to do something, do your best, do not settle for mediocrity.
You never know what doors that one opportunity may open for you. It might determine your destiny.


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