“You Can Never Have a Great Career out of Fear”


By Michael Taiwo, PhD

Editor: Michael is a first class chemical engineering graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria, and a PhD holder in same discipline from the University of Arkansas, United States. He works in a multinational energy giant in the United States. He is a childhood friend of and academic mentor to Jarus and member of JarusHub Advisory Team. 

This is the transcript of the speech I delivered at the 2017 Chemical Engineering Spring Banquet in Fayetteville, AR on May 4, 2017. The audience of about 150 people comprised of Professors, graduating Chemical Engineering students (Bachelors, Masters and PhD) and their friends and families.

MT Arkansas

I flew in last night and it brought back memories of the first time I flew into XNA. I was expecting 8-lane highways, high-rise buildings, high-speed trains…just like in the American movies I saw back in Nigeria. Instead, I came out of this airport, and all I saw were… cows. I felt like I bought the wrong ticket.

I remember seeing so many trees without leaves. The driver told me that’s why it’s called the Dead of Winter. “Don’t worry, it will get better.” Of course, it got worse. We had an ice storm!

I lived in Lagos, a city of 20 million. I’m used to seeing people everywhere. I remember my first day of class, I stepped out of my apartment and saw nobody. I didn’t think anything of it. I got on the street and still nobody! How can there be so much space with not even a single soul in sight?

But my most vivid memory was standing in front of Old Main and thinking to myself “I made it! I made it!!” Why was I so giddy? It’s because I almost did not make it. I almost allowed fear to kill my dream of coming to the United States, of getting a PhD, of pushing myself to the limit.

You see, I finished my Bachelors in Chemical Engineering with First-Class Honors, I won some competitive awards along the way and had an impressive resume. With my profile, I could get any job I wanted in Nigeria, move into a nice neighborhood and just enjoy life. Not bad for a boy that was raised on less than 50 cents a day. The problem was that I wanted more. I wanted to experience places I only read about in books. I wanted the highest academic degree I could get. I wanted to study here, and broaden my knowledge, challenge my perspectives, engage with the world…I wanted more.

The only thing that stood in my way was fear, the fear of everybody around me. Those closest to me didn’t understand why I would want to leave a guaranteed good life for an uncertain future. Arkansas?! Where is that? Do you know anyone there? Nope. Have you ever been there? Nope. Why not consider a bigger, more diverse city? I kinda like the program they got going at Fayetteville. These are just a sample of the questions I had to field from those genuinely concerned for me.

This back and forth was still going on, when, on the morning of April 16, 2007, a senior at Virginia Tech opened fire, killing 32 people and wounding 17 others. It was the deadliest shooting ever on an American campus. I remember the details of the massacre because almost everyone forwarded me the news. I now had a clear choice to make: allow the actions of a deranged young man to derail my dreams or move forward in spite of the fear? I am here tonight because I chose my dream over fear.

Attending this school ranks as one of my best decisions. I made friends here [that] I’ll keep for life. Some of them are in this room. This is where I fulfilled a long-cherished dream of becoming a Doctor of Engineering. And, let’s face it, what’s better than being a Razorback!

Look, your dreams will always exist side by side with your fears. Both of them are a product of your rich imagination. And you have the power to make one or the other a reality. To have life, to have liberty, to have happiness, you need to feed your dreams and starve your fears. What will prevent you from living the life you want is not lack of money, or lack of time or lack of talent. What will prevent you from living the life you want is a lack of belief in your dreams. You have to believe your dreams to make them real.

People ask me how I survived poverty. How can a poor boy with no money and no connections in an impoverished society make it? The answer is surprisingly simple. I dream. I DREAM. The life I lead today is the product of my dream yesterday. I am dreaming right now of the life I want to lead tomorrow and I will not let fear dictate what I can or cannot become.

The most pernicious fears are not those of others but those that come from within, those that nag at you at every turn, seeking to paralyze you into inaction. As I was completing my program here, I was suddenly faced with the realization that I had spent my entire life in school, from Pre-K to PhD. [But seriously] I had been told about how real life is different from school; and how the school system does a horrible job of preparing students for success. Somehow, I took these well-meaning but misguided opinions as self-evident truths. On one hand, I was happy to be finishing my PhD; on the other, I was afraid, afraid that, perhaps, my best years were behind me.

But I have always dreamt of going into the oil and gas industry. Nigeria has plenty of oil and gas so it was a childhood dream. Here again, my dreams came face to face with my fears. I could go into the industry and fall flat on my face or I could stay in the familiar academic world. I have many brilliant friends who finished a PhD, went on to do a post-doc and took up a position with a university. It’s a great career. It’s just not my dream. If I followed their footsteps, it would be out of fear. And you can never have a great career based on fear.

It turns out my fears were unfounded. Work is very much like school. At school, you do your homework and receive a grade. Same thing in the office. In school, you take many classes at once; at work, you will have several projects simultaneously. More important, when you pass an exam, you are promoted, then given a more difficult exam. It will be the same at work. It’s actually better at work because each promotion comes with…privileges. I might have stayed in school forever if I get a big bonus for passing exams! So do not cast away your confidence which has a great recompense of reward. Don’t let anyone scare you that you are now entering the real world as if the last four years weren’t real. Real world is surviving homework after homework while still having time for friends, family and Bikes Blues and Barbeque.

I have a career, today, that only existed in my imagination just a few years ago because I fed my dreams and starved my fears. Is it possible that I could have gone into Corporate America and failed? Absolutely. But I have made a lifelong commitment to acknowledge my fear without catering to it. I have made it second nature to nurture my dreams because that is the only way to turn them into reality.

Friends, you are moving into the next chapter of your life. And I would be surprised if on some level, you are not afraid. The unknown can be scary. Fear during a transition is natural, even expected. But don’t let fear factor into your decisions. Move as if you cannot fail. The odds may be stacked against you but you can beat the odds. People beat the odds every day, why not you? Let your dreams be the driver, taking you to places you have only been in your head. People ask me if I consider myself fortunate. Yes. I have been fortunate to be bold. Fortune favors the bold.

When you have kids, you watch kid movies. Last week, we saw one from Disney called Zootopia. I can’t tell you what the story was about but a few lines from the sound track stuck with me. At various points during the movie I heard the words “Try Everything; I’ll keep on making those new mistakes; I’ll keep on making them every day.” Disney just distilled my entire message about dreaming more and fearing less into three sentences. So to the class of 2017, I say: Try Everything; Make New Mistakes; Make Them Every Day. Thank you.


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