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My First Major Setback



To tell you the truth, I never faced any major setback in the first eighteen years of my life because somehow, things almost always worked out in my favour. Like in the year 2000, I was transferred to a private primary school called Kunoni Educational Centre when I was in Standard Seven just as it had always been my wish since my immediate elder brother Paddy had been accepted there back in 1998.

Then while in Kunoni, I studied diligently to ace the final national primary school exams known as KCPE and succeeded as a result of which I was admitted at Starehe Boys' Centre just as it had always been my wish ever since I started hearing of the prestigious instutition which consistently appeared among the top high schools here in Kenya in the '90s and well into the 2000s.

At Starehe, I successfully rose from the bottom of my class in academics to score an 'A' in the mighty KCSE exams. Then after my high school years, I had an opportunity to pursue a Diploma in Information Technology at Starehe Institute where I acquired the computer programming skills I had wished to develop when I was in my final year in high school in 2005.

But then in mid-March of 2007, I experienced my first major set-back. Okay, let me tell you the full story. And I promise not to bore you.

When I was in Starehe Institute, I developed a desire to pursue my undergraduate degree abroad. It is under the influence of that desire that I turned up some time in 2006 for a conference that had been advertised in a local daily on studying in a Canadian university I wish not to mention its name.

The turnout for the conference was poor because if my memory serves me right, I don't think there were more than thirty people present. All I recall was that after the conference speaker was through with whatever stuff he was telling us about studying in the Canadian university, I approached him for a talk during which I presented to him a copy of my KCSE result slip.

And alas! He was so impressed with my KCSE results in which I had scored six 'A's and two 'A-'s that he took down my name, email address and perhaps a few other details I can't remember.

Guess what? Several weeks later, I received an email from the Canadian university congratulating me for having been accepted into it to study engineering.

I can't recollect if I was ever elated about getting admitted into the Canadian university. All I remember was how I eventually gave up with studying at the university simply because I couldn't afford the air fare, let alone the tuition and accommodation fees.

Then after that unsuccessful attempt to land an opportunity to study abroad, I started hearing and reading about top American colleges that meet the full financial needs of admitted students.. I told my father about them and he encouraged me to apply.

With my father's blessings, I researched more about the top American colleges. I then settled on applying to MIT, the world's premier institute in science, technology, engineering and math, in addition to three other colleges.

Applying to MIT was rigorous but I thought it was worth it because the institute promised to meet my full financial needs if I got accepted unlike the Canadian university I have told you about that only assessed my KCSE result slip only to disappoint me with exorbitant tuition and accommodation fees that my family couldn't afford.

As for applying to MIT, imagine I filled out several forms, submitted a high school transcript, wrote several essays, sent three recommendation letters and sat for the SAT exams which cost me Ksh. 14,700 because I sat for the SAT 1 Reasoning Test twice in addition to the SAT 2 Subject Tests.

And to further improve my chances of getting accepted into MIT, I also submitted a cassette recording of me playing the piano and a CD-copy of an educational website I had created with two of my classmates at Starehe Institute. Those two supplementary materials were not required but I must have believed then that they would make me stand out in the talented pool of students who were applying to MIT.

I submitted all those materials by the usual January 1st deadline. And then, the about three-month waiting period began.

Reflecting on my life so far, I have never experienced a longer period of bliss than I had in the first two-and-a-half months of 2007 when I was in my final months at Starehe Institute. My life was blissful during those months because the subjects I was learning at Starehe Institue were relatively easy because I had come to love computer-programming but mostly because I was filled with hope that I would eventually fly to MIT for my undergraduate degree as it was my dream.

But then came the mid-March of 2007 I have told you about. Well, MIT released its decision online in the early hours of the night of 16th of that March (Kenyan time) during which I anxiously logged into my MIT account to check whether I had been accepted. Then I became sick with disappointment on reading the following letter addressed to me:
Dear Johnny,

The Admissions Committee has completed its review of your application, and I am so sorry to tell you that we are unable to offer you admission to MIT.

Please understand that this is in no way a judgement of you as a student or as a person, since our decision has more to do with the applicant pool than anything else. Most of our applicants, who like you are among the best in the world, are not admitted because we simply do no have enough space in our entering class. This year we had almost 12,500 candidates for fewer than 1,500 offers of admission, from which will come our 1,000 freshmen. Since all of our decisions are made at one time and all available spaces have been committed, all decisions are final.

Despite what you might think, the admissions process is not an exact science. Our applicant pool is more self-selected than most, with a very high percentage of top students, virtually all of whom have distinction in demanding academic programs as well as outstanding achievements in their lives outside of the classroom. We evaluate each applicant's materials carefully and select those we judge to be the best match for our community.

I am very sorry to bring you such disappointing news when you have worked so hard. You are a terrific student, and I wish you the very best as you continue with your education.

Sincerely,

Marilee Jones.
Dean of Admissions [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].
While applying to MIT, the institute had asked me in a question on one of their application forms to tell them a nickname my friends liked calling me. I told them it was Johnny; that's why Marilee Jones addressed me as Johnny.

And despite her assurance that I was a terrific student, I felt so heartsick that I had trouble getting out of bed the following morning. It was like the institutions I had attended and the exams I had taken hadn't prepared me for that first major setback of my life.

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Imitation is Limitation

Featured in this November 3, 1992 Time magazine is Bill Clinton after he was elected the 42nd President of the United States. He looked calm and composed in the face of victory, didn't he?


Bill Clinton served as the President of the United States mostly in the '90s when I was too young to understand politics. It wasn't until much later on in 2006 that I earnestly became interested in his life after I came across his pictures in old Time and Newsweek international news magazines that Dad used to buy for us at home. I admired those pictures of him in which he radiated charisma. And I particularly liked one in which he was caught on camera in a reflective mood.

Then when I matriculated at the university in JKUAT on May 2007, I read his autobiography that my first-semester Communication Skills lecturer named Prof. Paul Njoroge lent me. I read that autobiography with great interest after which I returned it to Prof. Njoroge.

Afterwards in December of that year of 2007, I bought my own copy of Bill Clinton's autobiography which I re-read twice in a span of three years. I still have that personal copy to this day which is now dog-eared and torn apart due to too much referencing.

Imagine I came to admire Bill Clinton so much that I would download his pictures from the web as well as listen to some of his speeches on Youtube. Of the few speeches of his that I listened to, the one that I loved most was his January of 1993 inaugural address which he delivered in elegantly measured cadences.

My admiration of Bill Clinton mutated into a problem when I began imitating him. I used to love plagiarizing some stories from his autobiography and then sharing them with my friends on email and on Facebook.

At one time in 2011, I extracted a quote from his autobiography which I relayed to a certain choir at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. Guess what the quote said? That "don't blame Jesus if you go to hell".

Although I loved the quote and enjoyed challenging the choir members with it, some of them didn't take it kindly when I told them not to blame Jesus if they went to hell. They summoned me for a meeting a few Sundays later, grilled me and then instructed me to apologize for what I had said. I did apologize later on in 2012 in a speech I felt proud about.

Bill Clinton says in his autobiography that he came across that quote on a bumper sticker. And here I was foolishly relaying it to a choir of devoted Christians. Imitation is limitation.

I also tried to imitate Bill Clinton by seeking to work at Kenya's Parliament when I was at the University of Nairobi like the way Bill Clinton worked in the United States Congress when he was an undergraduate at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. in the 1960s.

Do you know what happened? I was denied access into the parliament buildings and when I tried to be persuasive, the gate-keepers rudely turned me away.

But the worst form of imitation of Bill Clinton that I did was when I attempted to run for my county's senatorial seat in the 2013 Kenya's General Elections like the way Bill Clinton ran for United States Congress seat early in the 1970s when he was in his 20s.

And do you know what happened? I failed to command the sort of respect, charisma and attention that Bill Clinton radiated back in the 1970s when he was my age.

Some time last year, it dawned on me that I failed to radiate charisma because unlike Bill Clinton, I hadn't hit the 10,000 hours of practice that Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers: The Story of Success, says we must complete for us to succeed at whatever we are trying.

You see, Bill Clinton became interested in politics when he was a boy by following political speeches on TV like Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream. When he was in high school, he run for a post in a certain boys' organization and got elected. As a leader in that organization, he was selected to visit President John F. Kennedy in the White House.

Then when he was a first-year student at Georgetown University, Bill Clinton won the election for freshman class president. During his holidays while he was still at Georgetown, he campaigned for his favourite politicians in his home state of Arkansas during which I am sure he got to learn a lot about his state as well as its people and politics.

Because of that proven track record of interest and commitment to politics, Bill Clinton won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England after his Georgetown years. In his application essay for the Rhodes Scholarship, he had written that he desired to study at Oxford so that he could "prepare for the life of a practising politician" and "mold an intellect that [could] stand the pressures of political life".

After a two year stint at Oxford during which he read hundreds of books, Bill Clinton flew back to the United States to pursue law at Yale University, one of the most prestigious schools in America. Afterwards in 1972, he campaigned for George McGovern - that year's U.S. Democratic Party presidential candidate.

As you can discern for yourself, Bill Clinton had already hit the 10,000 hours of practice in politics by the time he was running for United States Congress in his late '20s. And here was I - Thuita J. Maina with no political experience - foolishly imitating Bill Clinton by attempting to vie for my county's senatorial seat in the 2013 Kenya's General Elections. Little wonder that my campaign was a complete flop.

Moral of the story: imitation is limitation for shizzle. So, as Oscar Wilde put it, "be yourself; everyone else is already taken". Adieu!

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RECOMMENDATION: If you've enjoyed this story of mine on imitation is limitation, you might also enjoy another one I wrote on "Cultivating Love" in which I also mentioned Bill Clinton. Just click that link in blue to jump straight into the story.

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