In Search of Competence

I remember the conversation clearly, when my parents sat me down to talk about how playing video games was affecting my performance in high school. They had banned me from playing games for a whole term when I was below average more than once. They now wanted to understand why I played so much, because they didn't get it.

To me, gaming was a relief and an escape from a world where I didn't have a choice on what I wanted to do. It was high school, there were a set number of subjects and you had to perform well in all of them. You had to read long textbooks, finish tedious assignment and later do nerve-wracking examinations that tested you on narrow set of knowledge that you were required to know. Every one of us was tasked to go through this, the 8-4-4 system was nothing but a bitch. It was very hard to connect how the subjects we were learning would help us in our future careers. Sure, things like Maths, Physics and Computer Studies made sense but the rest were just a waste in my view. They were too theoretical to the point of irrelevance, especially Kiswahili, which sort to make us linguists of the language. It made no sense. This was coupled with late nights and busy weekends to finish assignments and study for exams. Of course, I was going to play video games to blow some steam.

In a life so constrained, I needed an outlet and video games were my choice. I wasn't one of the cool kids who would go out to the mall and meet girls from other high schools like Kianda and LCVR. I also didn't play much sports, nor was I passionate about it. Neither was I part of the music team or school choir because I didn't really put in the effort. In the end, I didn't really have something to look forward to besides going home to play video games. It also didn't help that I could not watch TV or play during the week, so I really maximised my time during the weekends. I would play for 10 hours straight and still want to play some more. From the moment I got home on Friday evening, I was playing my favourite games such as GTA 5, Skyrim, Call of Duty and so on.

Those moments were freeing. The games gave me a platform to express myself and see progress in my life. They gave me the freedom to choose what I wanted to do. I was heavily drawn to open-world games, which presented to the player a big virtual world to explore. They were filled with interesting characters, who gave you missions and assigments to complete when you interacted with them. The most interesting thing is you never knew where those interactions led. A simple conversation would lead you to uncovering an important aspect of the main storyline or it may uncover a hidden and dark truth about the world around you. From these side missions, you gained powerful weapons and abilities that would help you in your battle against the main enemy in the story. Of course, there was a main story line to follow, but you could choose when to follow it and when to get involved in other side missions. That was such a great thing for my life at the time, which felt like a prison.

So why didn't my parents understand this? Well, they believed that the world has so much to offer but I just wasn't trying or looking hard enough. The truth is that I had tried a lot of things. I started playing guitar and I just didn't have the passion for it, I just thought it would be cool. I started playing football and I didn't enjoy it. I played volleyball and kinda enjoyed that. I did low distance running of 5000 metres and I was kinda good at it. However, out of all of these, I never really found anything that sparked my interest.

Interestingly enough, I found things that excited me outside of school. On one occasion, I attended a tech bootcamp for primary school pupils. I was tasked to guide one of the teams to build a project using LEDs and breadboards. It was really cool and I enjoyed it more than the kids. I was fascinated by what one could do with simple batteries and LEDs. I should not have been surprised since I was fascinated by those things as a kid. It just got lost along the way. Another instance was when I would be asked to lead during the youth services at my local church, PCEA Loresho. I didn't think much about it but I should have know that I had a gift of speaking in front of people and communicating a message, which I discovered later in university. It also didn't help that I was seen as a shy and poor communicator in high school and I was heavily mocked for it. In fact, heavily is an understatement. I was the butt of the joke, the bottom of the totem pole. If only I knew what I know now.

What am I getting at? Well, when my parents decided to have that conversation with me and they asked why I played video games so much, I had an interesting answer. When I played video games, I felt like I was in control of my own destiny. For a brief moment, I could embody the life of a virtual character and embark on a hero's journey, fighting against impossible odds to vanquish a foe and live out a life of purpose. I could be the Dragonborn and defeat Anduil, who sort to resurrect the dragon race and enslave mankind and all of Skyrim. I could be Spiderman as I fight crime and save New York from dangerous and cruel enemies. I could be Micheal De Santos as I plan the next heist with my two associates, Franklin and Trevor. I didn't just get to walk with these characters, I became them. I immersed myself in their story and made it my own. I acted out my yearning of heroism through them because I didn't have that in the real world. I had no places in my life that I could be a hero but this all changed when high school came to an end.

As my last days of high school approached and the KCSE exams drew closer, I recognised that I would be going out into a world full of possibilities. I was excited about being an engineer and specifically, becoming a Mechatronics engineer. I wanted to build robots and other technically advanced things. The merger of computers and engineering was a fascinating thing and I wanted to explore it fully. All I knew was that it was going to be cool. I would even count the number of Kiswahili classes that I had left, that's how much I hated Kiswahili and hated high school. I wanted the nightmare to end, I was done with the bullshit. The first glimpse of leaving the matrix was during our Form 4 parents' day when we met an organisation called IIHT. They dealt in teaching IT management skills. Just by looking at the curriculum, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. We were going to learn CCNA networking, computer hardware, Linux and Windows Server Administration and Security. By the time I was done with my KCSE at the end of the year, I enroll for the programme and I started the 6-month programme from the 1st week of January.

In the IIHT course, I got to meet some former school classmates and other new people from other high schools. After high school, I knew I had a clean slate and my confidence was through the roof. I answered all the questions I could, did all assignments and engaged the instructors as much as possible. I even became the de facto prefect, as I would urge guys to sign the register and I would give it to the receptionist at the end of each class. We had classes everyday, from Monday to Friday from 8 to 12. It was like school but unlike high school, I actually enjoyed this school. I wanted to go to school and learn new things. I would do all my assigments on time and even do extra. I would even compete with my friend (Willie) from high school on who would finish an assignment first. He would finish first most of the time. He was just smart like that. We had dreams of building a game together and doing Electrical engineering.

As I grew in competence in my computer skills, I grew equally in confidence and self esteem. It happened slowly but I started to becoming intolerant towards the mockery I would receive in high school. My competence in computers and my confidence to speak and communicate became a deadly weapon that I was only beginning to understand. In two situations where my former schoolmates wanted to mock me, I would push back and keep them in line. Each time, they got more cautious on how they approached me. In both situations, I felt good about it. I enjoyed knocking down their arrogance. This started my trend of realising the things I was good at and it led me straight to university where I realised I would be better off doing Computer Science.

When I joined Computer Science at Strathmore University, I started with a bang. I was confident, answered all questions, made all presentations, did extra work, worked on projects that were more advanced than what was being taught and lead project teams. I was shining like a diamond. What made it even better was that I didn't have any of my former school mates in the course I was doing. The clean slate was even cleaner and it was an opportunity to develop myself into the person I wanted to be.

As I went through this process of transformation, I noticed that I was playing video games less. It didn't bother me at first as I was so busy acclimatizing to being in university. However, it soon became clear that I didn't feel the spark I once had when I played video games. I would try to play a game but it felt boring and lack lustre. I worried that I was losing my touch and it would get worse with each gaming session I had. I wasn't feeling gaming anymore. I felt lost at that moment as I had identified as a gamer for a while and now I was not even gaming. I soon accepted my fate and proceeded to live my life in university. I continued to lead teams, build projects, meet new like-minded people, present in front of my peers, ask hard questions and so on.

I didn't understand what was happening then until I looked back and notice a trend. In high school, I used gaming to live out a life where I could control my own destiny and choose my path in life. When I felt high school, I got into a world where taking control of our own destiny and choosing your path is the only way to do things. Unlike high school, which was linear and narrow, I joined a world so vast and wide that I could actually find things that I enjoyed and good at. Nothing sparked my curiosity in high school, it was all boring, lack lustre stuff. Nothing to take home about. Thank God I got through without shooting myself. I was being measured on things that I didn't enjoy or wasn't good at. It was like telling a fish to climb a tree, school made me believe that I was stupid and for a moment, I actually believed it.

From the moment I found the thing I was good at and enjoyed, I became competent at it. Naturally, competence breeds confidence. This creates an amazing flywheel because people believe that confident people are competent, which gives you more opportunities to grow in competence. The flywheel also works reverse, where incompetence breeds lack of confidence, which makes people believe you are not competent, which gives you less opportunities to grow in competence and makes you less competent. I found myself in the negative flywheel in high school and it took a change in environment to kickstart the positive flywheel. I yearned for it and I prepared myself mentally for it. When the time came, I was ready and took the leap when the opportunity presented itself. Opportunity favours the prepared mind.

I am glad to say that I have come a long way. From playing video games to escape my rigid teenage life to becoming a co-founder of a startup, I have come to learn the great advantage of having a great environment that recognises and cultivates the strengths of an individual and gives them opportunities to become a competent human being. The opportunity to become competent at something is the greatest gift that you can give a person. Education is not the full story, you can educate people with nonsense that doesn't make them any better. At that point, you have just wasted their time. If everyone found something in this life that they enjoy doing, that they are good at it and also make a living, the world would be a much better place. We would have competent and confident individuals doing what they believe is right, adding value to society and living great and fulfilling lives.

My message is to anyone going through the negative flywheel, where you are at the bottom of the totem pole and no one seems to respect you. Where you feel worthless and would rather escape into a dream world to ride out the storm. I say to you that you can prepare an escape plan. Visualise it in your mind. Recognise that the environment and state you are in sucks like shit. Accept the bitter truth. Let it fire you up and anger you that you cannot live the life that you want. Plan your escape from the Matrix, a brutal, linear and narrow experience that seeks to sap all the energy from your soul. Chart your escape and keep an open mind for signs. Life is always telling you where you need to go, you just need to pay attention. For me, it was looking at the IIHT curriculum and realising that computing was my strength. The signs were there and they presented themselves to me until I noticed the pattern. Once you find your strength, it is time to prepare your mind to leave the Matrix. The D-day to leave the Matrix may be out of your control or it may be a choice you need to make. Count down to that date and visualise the glory and triumph of that day. That will be the day when your life will turn around. When you leave the Matrix, it is best to know where you will go. You must target an environment that recognises your strength as important and cultivates it. Find your tribe, your ideal company, university, startup and so on. Once you are in that ideal environment, push that positive flywheel as fast and as often as possible. Build momentum by exposing yourself to more projects, more assignments, more risks, more lessons. All in a bid to become more competent and grow in confidence.

I have given you my story and tips on what to do in your life. Now it is your turn to implement what I have told you. Competence is the goal, confidence is the reward and the opportunity only works if you are ready for it. Make a move champ.