As an author, a motivational speaker, a success coach, an entrepreneur, an artist, a trained engineer – with a full-time job as one – and a blogger, Okechukwu Ofili is a remarkable and unassuming young man, with a passion for life and for impacting people. He is the author of How Stupidity Saved My Life, a wise and inspiring book about his journey from being labeled a slow learner as a child to graduating among the top five in his class, in the university. His second book, How Laziness Saved My Life – with a similarly intriguing title and the same characteristic witty sketches – shatters the mold of rigid and ‘practical’ thinking in business, and makes a case for alternative and ‘lazy’ ideas that eventually bring the desired results. His zeal for making a difference is contagious, and it was a truly inspiring meeting as he sat with Connectnigeria.com to discuss his life, his books, and why he really loves writing.
Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Okechukwu Ofili. I studied engineering but, currently, I am an author — I stumbled upon that career, accidentally. I grew up in Lagos, and went to St. Leo’s Catholic Private School. Then I went to Corona Secondary School and, after that, I went to the University of Houston for my Mechanical Engineering Degree. Shortly after I graduated, I discovered my interest in public speaking. I started speaking at different colleges like Texas A & M University and Texas Southern University. Then I came back to Nigeria, sometime in 2006/2007, and I had a speaking tour in some secondary schools like Chrisland and Supreme Education Foundation. I was practically speaking all over the place. It wasn’t till after that, that I started focusing on it as a professional career — to actually get paid. Initially, I was doing it as community service.
Also, when I was growing up, I struggled academically. One of the things I noticed is that, in Nigeria, if you are not sharp enough, they flog you, scream at you, and make you attend after-school lessons. None of that ever worked for me. I realised that in JSS 2, it wasn’t that I wasn’t smart or that I was stupid, I just had a different way of learning and, luckily, I found out that way for myself. When I finally made it through University I decided to share that message with people, especially Nigerians. I wanted to tell them: look, stop beating your kids! That’s not the way to encourage them. And for the students that are being beat down, to believe in themselves. Many people will not understand them. People will try to put them down because they don’t understand the unique talents they have. What made me begin speaking, and writing, was just to motivate people.
You do probably all the amazing art, sketches, and designs on your website and on some of your products, how did you learn to do that?
I really don’t know. We are kind of creative in my family. I’ve been trying to actually rack my brain as to where it comes from, if it’s from my mom or my dad. However, my mom was a school teacher, and she used to come home with art materials that we would cut up and decorate her classroom with. Subconsciously, it might have grown on us, as kids, but I don’t know. Throughout secondary school that creativity was nowhere to be found, even in the university. It wasn’t till I got out of school and I started writing, and started sketching, that the creativity came out from somewhere.
Even my writing. I was meant to attend Adesoye College and I failed the English paper — that’s how bad I was in English. And up till today, I don’t really love writing per se. What I like about writing is the aftermath, when people tell me that what I wrote really connected with them, or encouraged them. That’s what really drives me to write. But writing as a whole, I’m not really thrilled to sit down and just write.
You said that you’re not really interested in writing in itself. We are curious about that revelation.
Yes. The result of my writing is what drives me. The editor who worked with me on my first book knows how I hate writing and editing, especially editing. But when I see the impact it has on people, and the difference it makes in their lives, that’s what keeps me going.
Your new book, which was billed to come out in April 2012, How Laziness Saved My Life, what’s it about? And what inspired it?
I think that book is appropriate for the Nigerian market. When I relocated, I noticed that a lot of Nigerians work extremely hard. I was listening to an MTV programme where Dangote, the richest man in Africa, was being interviewed. They asked him how he works and he said he works for about 16 to 18 hours a day. If you spend 16 to 18 hours a day working, that would mean you have only 6 to 8 hours to eat, sleep, take care of your family, and actually enjoy them. I realised that a lot of Nigerians live this way. All they do is getting up every day and work, work, work. It reminded me about when I started working, when I was about 28 years old. I got into this project where I had to work 3 a.m. to 3 p.m., 6 days a week. Eventually, I got sick, but I kept on working through the sickness. My body finally shut down, and I was forced to go see the doctor. The doctor discovered I had high blood pressure. At the age of 28. At that point I knew I had to stop that perception that you need to work so hard even to the point of dying.
When you read the book, it plays on the word laziness. It’s telling people that it’s okay to be lazy sometimes, it’s okay to sit down on Saturday and sleep all day, it’s okay to skip work (if it’s legal) and just relax and enjoy your family. You don’t have to work 365 days a year because you might never have the time to enjoy it. For a lot of Africans, it’s all about work. We want to provide for our families, so we never take time to relax with them. This book is all about taking it easy.
One incident which also pushed me to write this book was the experience of a friend of mine. He was working on this project, it was a new project and it was so important that he missed the birth of his son. At the end of the day, it turned out that the company didn’t need that project anymore. So he did all that work for nothing. I thought, something has to give. We really need to take a break.
Besides the print edition of your books, there’s a Kindle version and, recently, the books have gone mobile, on the Blackberry. How has the reception been for them here in Nigeria?
The mobile version of the book is what really excites me. It’s something that we are working on. As for the print version, I have always loved it. The reception in Nigeria has been overwhelming. Every time I go to a book reading, the question I keep getting is: what is happening to the reading culture in Nigeria? I ask them if they know how hard it is for me to get book stores to actually take my books, or for them to actually pay me, or for me to take my books to places like Kaduna. It’s very difficult. Most children don’t have the opportunity and easy access to books. We don’t have the road network and the economy is poor. Rather than complain about the system, and criticisize our kids that they are always on Facebook, on Twitter, and on their mobile phones, I thought why don’t we just pick the books and put them in the phones. The logical solution would be to put it on the iPad or the Kindle but most people can’t afford that. We have a lot of people that have mobile phones and Blackberry’s, so let’s put the books into those devices. The key part of the whole thing is the ease of payment. What we’re trying to do is to get companies, like MTN, to have people download books on mobile phones for a fee. So we are adding value. Instead of our kids always downloading music, and all that, why don’t they download books? If we can get How Stupidity Saved My Life on the mobile, then we can start putting more books on the mobile platform. My dream is to have Things Fall Apart as a legal download on mobile phones, and then I’ll know that I can retire.
The level of education seen today in most of the Nigerian youth is abysmal. Citing some examples from your experiences, would you say it is a failure of the state or a failure of the home? Or both?
I believe it’s the government — the government has failed us. Again, I don’t want to compare myself with anybody. My story is a great story, but understand I went to Corona secondary school and to St. Leo’s Catholic Private School. I went to good schools. The average person can’t afford those schools but, on the flip side, when I went to the United States of America, I went to a public university. Nevertheless, I was still able to compete with people who went to private colleges. The only good university right now, in my opinion, is Covenant University, and it’s a private school. We need to be able to get our public universities up to the level of the private universities. And we need to start by fighting corruption. I can tell you this has happened more than 20 times: when I’m talking with some people, they just mention, casually, that for them to pass their math exams they never attended math classes. They just had to pay their way through. It’s corruption and it’s rife. In times past, people wanted to go to America, people wanted to go to England…right now people are going to South Africa, Benin Republic, Ghana, anywhere but Nigeria. And it’s bad. We can’t say we are the giant of Africa and all our kids are running away. Something is wrong. And my hope is that more and more private universities spring up so that public universities realise that they have to step up. We have to stamp out corruption.
The other thing is that teachers’ aren’t paid enough. It’s not simple enough to say that there is a corruption problem. Corruption always starts because of something. If you are not paying your teachers enough for them to take care of themselves, they are going to find a way to get money. They are going to collect it someway from students. Now, they feel it’s legal. It seems like a normal thing. Somebody said that if you pay a Nigerian who works for you, from Monday to Sunday, about N30, 000 a month, you should be afraid that when you are sleeping at night he will come and rob you. You have to ask yourself: how is he able to survive on this amount each month? So we have to be realistic. We are not paying teachers enough, and we need to pay them more. If we pay our teachers more, we are going to see that the standard of education will improve.
Continue to the second part of this interview here: Okechukwu Ofili: How Stupidity and Laziness Saved His Life (Part 2).