Georgia International Leadership Conference (2018): My Experience

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Don’t Follow Your Passion – Technology is Amoral – We Are All Bags of Biases – A Mexican and a 20-year Old Philosopher – Every Race Lies and Cheat – And Loads of Fun

I spent this weekend at the Georgia International Leadership Conference (GILC 2018) in Rock Eagle, Eatonton, Georgia. I had wanted to cancel the trip due to ‘too much’ stuff to do. Namely, a book project and crap load of experiments in the lab.

But I was glad I went. It was informative, and I had fun.

I will give my highlight of the events, with, majorly my comments about some of the topics that were raised at the sessions (some of which I had mentioned and discussed with participants).

Don’t Follow Your Passion

The first speaker was Stella Jemna, a project manager at the American Turkish Friendship Council. She gave a beautiful motivational talk to get people to think of themselves as leaders, which was good. I felt riled up after her talk, and it was helpful that she was funny too.

She said something insightful during her talk, which I can summarize as the following: if the devil inside does no harm, the devil outside can do us no harm i.e. we are our own challenge, we are (primarily) our own problem.

That, struck a chord in my soul.

However, I disagree on her on certain issues, one of which is the advice, “follow your passion”. I think such admonition can be bad for so many of us.

And this is what I mean:  1) many of us have no clue has to what our passion is, 2) many of us have a lot of passions and hence the question: “which one should I follow?” 3) many of us have evanescent passions, 4) many of us have passion that are NOT economically viable say, rearing pet lambs at my grandmother’s backyard, hence in an aggressive capitalistic economy like ours, one begs to ask the question: how the heck will I survive? 5) …

I will rather follow Dr Newport’s advice which is the following: “passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before” [note 1]

And what does this mean?

It means at some point you should probably stop looking for a passion, work on what you have now, put your head down and get the rare skills in your field that we will make you thrive, then you will be happy [note 1].

Let me repeat: while the advice ‘follow your passion’ might work for some people, I wager that it doesn’t for a lot of us. At best it leaves us confused.

Technology is Amoral

The next day, I attended a session on technology and relationships, subtitled how technology brings us together and tears us apart. We sat down for some 40 minutes going back and forth on the pros and cons of social media.

I must say that the pros are really great, very magical if you think about it.  Similarly, the cons are bad, really bad as they are meant to be bad, I had guess. And we all know it, no need for exposition here.

However – I had said in the session – that, why technology have their intrinsic biases [note 2], it is important to always and always and always remember that technology is amoral.

I have no idea who invented the first gun, I have absolutely no idea, but I can guess (s)he had probably wanted to kill a very, very big rabbit in the forest so badly that (s)he invented one.

But, friends, what do we do with guns today?

Social media has an enormous potential to draw us closer, but if they are being used to mess up with our minds to dictate whom we vote for in political elections (among several others).

Now, I have to say, that is bloody crazy.

But here is the sad part, many people saw this coming, we can predict these events, but we tend to be overly optimistic as humans. And we always – I repeat, always –  wait for disasters to happen before we start thinking.

Think about the sinking of the titanic, the gulf spill, all these disasters had to happen before we started thinking about regulations.

We need to be more skeptical about our progress with technologies and above all, we need REGULATIONS.

We Are All Bags of Biases

I also attended a session titled “leaders are born not made! An argument against the social belief.”

We had discussions on the various kinds of leaders, and how the meaning of leaders had evolved over time. My favorite part in the session was the importance of diversity in team building. In that session, I made the following comment (paraphrased):

“We are all bags of biases and this state is inevitable. Why? Because we have different childhood experiences, grew up in different environments, and by so we tend to believe certain things as true or wrong, just based on subtle social customs and constructs that are not obvious. Thus, if I were to lead a team, I would select folks – given that they are very civic – with differing beliefs or ideologies on issues to be deliberated. Our biases are not obvious and need to be checked. We all need one another”

Happiness Is a Choice

Lipi Vora from Georgia Tech led a beautiful session on happiness. It is essential that leaders stay happy to be productive at their job, she argued.

She shared some simple tools that could help us stay and maintain a happy state such as meditation and breathing (In fact, we did a short 12 minutes meditation session and that was awesome).

In addition, she mentioned – in a different context – what Epicurus had discovered thousands of years ago:

“[that]money’s capacity to deliver happiness is already present in small salaries and will not rise with the largest” [note 3]

And what more? she argued that happiness is a choice.

Actually, I argued for the opposite position at the end of the session and that got me trouble. It didn’t go well with a lot of people, perhaps they got me wrong, except for (at least) a Mexican lady and a 20-year old philosopher who came to me afterwards and did get my point.

I will restate my argument here.

Happiness is a choice for people who have the knowledge, understanding and believes that happiness is a choice (which is not all of us, apparently). Therefore, staying happy CANNOT be a choice for a lot of people in the world.

A participant had countered and said, “but we choose to believe!”. But then, if we think about it, can we choose to believe what we don’t know or understand? Absolutely No.

And why is this argument important?

So, we can spread the gospel of the ‘choosability’ of happiness, because many people don’t know.

Every Race Lies and Cheat.

The most awkward session I attended was titled Shattering Myths and Learning Truths about the World. Even though it was awkward, I enjoyed it, and I learnt a few things that I didn’t know people might think of when they see (just see) someone like me.

This is the way it was set up. Every nationality present in the session had the name of their country written on a white board.

A representative of that country says a few words about the country, and people asked questions about the stereotypes they have about that country. And then a response.

Here comes Nigeria. And I heard things like the following.

“I heard Nigeria men are controlling, that they cheat on their wives”

“Hmm, I also heard that Nigerians are scammers” etc

As you might have guessed I felt a little awkward.

This was my response (paraphrased)

“First, every race on earth lies and cheat. Second, stereotypes tend to have some elements of truths to them, but we must be very careful when we approach stereotypes.

Our social world is complex, we clearly have no capacity to subject every single person we meet to an independent scrutiny (at the spot), that is why we have stereotypes, to guide us through our decision-making process rather rapidly.  However, we inherently fall into the trap of generalization during this process, which could be very, very, very, very bad. [note 4]

The first thing to note is that bad news is more intense than good news, as such we are much more wired to spread bad news.

Let’s take Nigeria. She has a population of about 200 million. 527 languages, over 1150 dialects and ethnic groups [note 5].

What are we talking about here?

We are talking different religions, different cultures, different languages; wouldn’t generalizations in this kind of context be fatuous? And I had guess this will apply to a whole lot of countries in the world.

That been said, I think it is logical to stick to our stereotypes when time is an enemy especially when that is coupled with taking very highly consequential decisions.

Let me end here.

And Loads of Fun

However, I had to say that I danced to Wande Coal’s Iskaba (I regret I don’t have photos and videos), I did my first fashion show (It was impromptu. I had thought I would look ridiculous, but folks said I had looked just the opposite, so I trust them), and I played a fantastic game called Mashmallow Tower Challenge. You should look it up.

Thank you for reading.

PS: And I apologize for any typos.


[1] A curious reader can pick up the book So Good That They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport for a full fledge argument on this issue, no time to go deeper in this short article.

[2] Technology have biases by Douglas Rushkoff in This Will Make You Smarter.

[3] The Consolation of Philosophy by Alain De Botton

[4] A Psychological (and Mathematical) Meditation on Stereotype. Olatomiwa Bifarin. October 2016.

[5] Culture of Nigeria, Wikipedia.

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6 thoughts on “Georgia International Leadership Conference (2018): My Experience

  1. Aminat says:

    Graduate School makes us Critics. Good line of thoughts. I have removed my critical cap for the day, I would have argued your passion view point.

  2. Hi Bif, wonderful article man! I just had a few thoughts and questions I wanted to share with you…

    1. How did you make the decision what is it you want to invest your time in? I believe in the compass over map theory, so to speak, which encourages the active pursuit of one’s curiosity. It’s like the belief of love at first sight but also having the patience to know that our dreams will always end up different than we think (your thought of our passions are unknown or will not lead us to the right area). To me, this curiosity is the core of my being and love of life and comes with an awareness that the opportunities that will bring us growth and change come in packages not wrapped like gifts so to speak. I agree that getting down to this core takes a lot of work in the form of consistency and an openness to learn and improve as you build upon a skill.

    2. I agree with you that people NOT technology is the issue, however, as a society how do you recommend we predict the behavior of our greedy nature and develop coherent legislation and public policy that will level the playing field for all to have an equal opportunity? I think that your ‘bags of biases’ hints to a solution in regards to the answer lies in embracing our diversity in one another and having the humility to develop dialogue up and down classes and across cultures.

    3. I admire your outlook on happiness, if I may I would like to add that I believe the society we live in favors certain people from the ‘start’ however everything after that is our choice to decide where we want to move, so to speak. Sure others might have to put in a different amount of effort than others, however, inspiring people to want to learn is the better question. It is our progress where happiness lies, in my opinion.

    4. Could you clarify what you mean by ‘time as the enemy’ and why you believe its good to empower our decision with our stereotypes (perspective on the world)? My initial impression is that these two ideas don’t belong together because if we generalize the people around us before we get to know they we miss out on the chance to learn to love and appreciate our neighbor.

    5. We did a similar type of game in a seminar I took regarding intercultural communication where we had to plan for half the game how we would build a sugar tower and other half on executing our strategy. I learned that people make irrational decisions under pressure and are motivated by the thought of having “more”. Since we competed as teams I thought wouldn’t it be nice if the world learned to work together as one team sharing its resources in building the tallest ‘tower’ (like Babel) but then again we have stereotypes which are fostered by our domestic media and stories from childhood, miscommunications from personal encounters with these people and misunderstandings that lead to conflict thus bringing the cycle back to experiences that will be shared in the forms of stories.

    • Olatomiwa Bifarin says:

      Michael, Thanks for these important questions:
      1. I love your strategy. it makes a lot of sense. Of what purpose is life if one can not be driven by curiosity. But this might not be pragmatic for some people. As an example, I have had several interests growing up in Nigeria which might not be realizable because of the lack of enabling environment. To answer your question directly, I do what I love, and what I think I might love given the constraint of certain resources such as the environment. But my main argument is that, a lot of people waste time searching for a passion as if we all have a predestined passion, mislead by the follow-your-passion advice. If I meet such person I will tell them the following, “passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before”

      2a. Yes, I agree. The ‘bag of biases’ argument can be a solution (but not an easy one, as we are not ‘wired’ to have our beliefs challenged). 2b. Predicting our greedy behavior is easy, note that the future is in the past. Technology, is, more or less like a mirror that reflects the human flaws. And the human flaws are very well known (love of money, lying, cheating etc) So, it suddenly becomes easy to predict what we could do with technology. Again, our mis-use of technology reflects human flaws.

      4. It is not rational to generalize stereotypes, especially negative stereotypes. But if one has to make a very highly consequential decision – say a live/death decision – at an instant (i.e. literally no time to deliberate), I don’t see how following through with your stereotypes will be irrational. But the good thing is that most(99%) of the decisions we have to make about people we meet don’t fall into such categories.

    • Olatomiwa Bifarin says:

      I don’t go to conferences like this, This will be my first leadership conference (I think) since I came to the US. This just fell on my laps through the help of a fellow graduate student here at UGA. And this particular one is for all international students studying in the state of Georgia.

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