Leonard Ithau on finding life purpose at 50Friday May 26 2023
Leonard Ithau’s tipping point was 12 years ago when he turned 50. He had been questioning the idea of his sole betrothment to his career as an engineer, something he had done for 35 years, engaging in major engineering and building projects in Kenya and the region.
It was fulfilling but it wasn’t filling his cup. So he joined the Rotary Club of Karen to serve humanity.
There he has served as Speaker Secretary, Treasurer, President, and Assistant Governor for the District for two terms.
In 2021, he was elected as the District Governor Nominee for Rotary International District 9212 which covers Kenya, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Eritrea.
He also serves as a member of the Board of Governors of the Karen Technical Training Institute for the Deaf and recently an Independent Director of the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).
“We try and write the script of our lives, but it never ends up that way. Very rarely,” he said.
“When we are young we try and write it stronger but as we get older and realise that it's not possible, we start going with the flow and that's when we start realising or achieving our true potential.”
When did you start processing issues around potential and purpose?
Some people recognise it early, others a bit later. For me, it was turning 50. It felt like the tipping point. I stopped seeing myself as a good engineer, a good professional, all these things I had been trained for and worked for.
I was a citizen of the world, free to be anything and everything I wanted. It dawned on me that my influence is not restricted to my professional area, family, or my immediate circle.
Often we are afraid to achieve our full potential. Think about Steve Hawkins [English physicist] immobile in his chair, yet he was free to roam the cosmos in his mind.
The fact is that we are not measured by the movement of our bodies but by the movement of our minds.
You talked about limits, what were your limits before you hit 50?
The expectation to excel in my profession, and only my profession. There's nothing wrong with that, but is that our full potential?
Do you wish you posed the questions you are asking yourself now way sooner?
No. Because it has prepared me for what I do and what I aspire for now. I have gained discipline, tenacity, and an understanding of working in challenging situations.
So nothing is ever wasted. If all that didn’t happen, you would not be sitting here with me because I'd be building very tall complex buildings all over the place.
That, however, wouldn't be significant enough for us to be sitting across from each other.
What initially drew you towards building those tall complex buildings?
I enjoyed the complexity of it all. I've tended to work in challenging environments within my field.
Instead of just being an engineer, I went and became the project manager; the leader of architects, engineers, quantity surveyors, mechanical and electrical contractors, and sub-contractors.
The complexity of handling and delivering on that has kept me interested as I try to get to the top of the practice.
Is it something you chose, that field, at the beginning or did you just sort of find yourself there?
My father chose it. (Chuckles) Those days, you reviewed your report card with your father. Mine arrived at the decision that I needed to pursue this.
I was one of those students who was good across the board, so my father had the freedom to choose. At that time I preferred to be a doctor because I was crazy about biology.
I was also good at art, I could really draw. Talking of which, there's a drawing I did the other day. Let me show you…[Brings a drawing of a flower].
What was your biggest influence growing up?
My father. His expectations were very high. He was happy around people who were successful in whatever they did, but never forced it upon us.
He never asked me to read. He never asked me to do well, but we could sense that he liked that.
We saw how hard he worked to get where he was, and that served as a motivation. My mother never pushed me. With her, the choice was yours.
What kind of a mother was she?
She was the best and lived to the age of 87. My father passed on earlier, about 37 years ago, so she was a constant presence.
At home, I'd say she was the quiet 'driver'. My father was a noisy 'driver, but the real influence was her.
What was your idea of success growing up?
I equated success with the acquisition [of property and influence]. I became very competitive and was always eyeing a position and property to acquire.
It was not until I turned 50 that I realised that things are not very important; that there is a lot more to contribute.
The funny thing is that contribution in our country is seen as going into a political office, but there are numerous ways to contribute.
The irony seems like one has to go through this phase of acquisition and position to emerge on this side where they start thinking about contribution, purpose, and impact.
I work with many young people in the Rotary who are committed to their careers but also to communal service. I would never have thought of doing that at their age.
Never! So you can see it's happening at different times with people. I realised at 50 but many young people are getting here faster.
I just came from Addis and there I met lots of young boys and girls committed to people they don't know. It's phenomenal.
The difference is going to be made not by roads built nor by bridges, but by caring for others in the community. When we extend a bit of care, the impact is great.
What have you learned about yourself through service?
That I have only hit one percent of my potential. That we all possess different gifts, and discovering them is a process that sees some do it earlier and others later in life.
How old are you now?
What are you unlearning now at 62?
I'm unlearning to be an engineer and be just me. I'm Leo. That's it.
What part of your personality have you struggled with?
I’m very quiet, but sometimes people imagine that’s shyness. I’m not shy, I’m quiet but serious.
The formula of happiness is being yourself, and embracing who you are. I have had to embrace all the bits about me, the good and the ones I struggle with because that’s what makes you complete and unique, isn’t it?
When was the last time you were very scared?
[Pause] I think 15 or 20 years ago. I was carjacked at 2 pm on a road I travelled every day.
Three guns were trained on me and at that moment I knew I'd either be fine or would die in the next few seconds.
There was a guy outside my door screaming for me to open the door. He was sweating and agitated and he had veins on his head.
I knew if I didn’t open the door there was a 100 percent chance I would die, but if I opened the odds improved to a 90 percent chance I’d die.
So I chose to open and they descended on me, took everything I had, beat me up, kicked me, and left me.
Did that trauma change you in any way?
Yes, I came to the realisation of the fleetingness of it all; that you could come and go and that one shouldn’t be fixated on anything. All it takes to change your life is one brief moment.
At 62 do you think about your mortality, and if you do what thoughts come to your mind?
I think about it more now than when I was younger. At this age, you are aware that there isn’t much time left.
So you're worried more or less about the process; will it be very painful or not?
But you have also accepted the fact of death and you try to make every day productive. You accept things as they are and do your best to touch others.
Is there something you've struggled to accept?
I struggle to accept that I am not capable of doing some things. A lot of time as you're growing people will tell you you're not enough.
I struggled to accept that because I don't believe it. People find it easier to mention one's shortcomings rather than things they can do. I also struggle to accept that I'm old now.
I struggle when someone calls me Mzee. I think given the right environment, people, regardless of their age, can do almost anything.
If you lived in a world without fear or repercussions, what would you do?
I’d change the world. You know, it's not about changing the fact that people become sick and die or that there will always be the poor and the rich, but the way we treat each other.
If I had a chance I would do something to get people to have that basic respect for each other, to offer grace.
If you were to apologise to one person, who would that be?
(Pause) My father. I, well not apologise, regret that he passed the first month of me starting work. So I feel he's missed out on everything. My mother went the full distance.
What kind of fatherhood advice would you give young people starting families?
First, don't strain. Push evenly, push consistently, but not too hard. Secondly, just be yourself. It's hard to discover yourself but just be what your intuition is telling you to be, not what others are telling you to be. Listen to your gut.
How do you reward yourself now?
By doing the things I like. Even the work I do, the projects I do are the ones I like. I'm committed to service. Now I’m committed to extending my circle to influence more humanity.
Part of it is trying to get people to act on being better humans who can serve other humans.
Any great revelations in life so far?
Yes, most people are good. I’ve met them in my sector and through the Rotary. Fundamentally, people are good. But there's a small percentage who are completely evil.
What chapter of your life would you recommend for someone to read?
Anything from 50. It’s a chapter where they will find a man who is no longer afraid to voice his inner feelings.
I always hear people talking about the element of luck in success. Do you believe in luck and what percentage does it occupy in the overall preservation of success?
There's no luck. There can be events, you know, those that will happen like the sun, earthquake, and gangsters attacking.
The net input of success, however, is effort. There has to be thought, and then a thought followed by action. There is a constant push and a yield, but there is no luck.
You can say that you're unlucky that you were born here, or you were staying there. That's not luck, that's your position. Everyone has a position when they start, some start ahead, others don’t.
Which of your personal qualities would you not want your children to pick?
My risk appetite. I would want them to be less risk-averse, to take more risks.
I have been very systematic in my life, which comes from my profession. I'm a project manager, so my job is to assess risk, then mitigate it. I’m always measuring.
If you were to go back, what kind of risk would you take in your 40s?
I could try a lot of things in my profession, even if there was a real chance of failure. I would have wished to get over the thought process where I’m assessing things before I do them and dropping the idea altogether if I felt it won’t work.
This is the reason I say there's nothing like good luck, you must try everything. It's the only way to discover yourself and this process is not scripted.
What do you know about money now that you wish you knew 20 years ago?
That money can sense you're a bit uncomfortable or you have too much desire for it. It's like it knows. If you're a bit more relaxed it will come to you.