Do you make a plan or make an excuse?

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Founder Jay Kloppenberg compares scholar behaviour to successful rappers, highlighting  accountability as an ASE value. Morning assemblies are key to maintaining a culture of excellence and high expectations. Jay’s rap knowledge is not so shabby for a school leader.

Good morning! As some of you know, ngiyafunda ukukhuluma isiZulu manje, kodwa… (I am now learning to speak isiZulu, but…) when I first moved to this country, before I started learning isiZulu, I first had to learn to speak South African English.

The first time someone told me to go left at the robot, I began looking for a metal person from a sci-fi movie, telling me where to turn. When I saw a very cute small baby, and I heard someone say, “Aww, shame!” I could not, for the life of me, figure out why it was a shame that a baby was cute. By far my favourite South African saying, though, is “make a plan.” Any time anything goes wrong, or something difficult happens, people are advised to “make a plan.” I love it, because it speaks to the resilience and resourcefulness of the people of this country. I also love that it creates a stark contrast between the people who make plans, and the people who make excuses.

I will tell you a few stories to demonstrate what I mean. I’m glad our last speaker mentioned hip-hop, because my first two stories will come from the hip-hop world. In December, I saw a few scholars from our school at the mall; one of you was wearing a YMCMB hat. He was also walking with something of a limp, and I wondered if his leg was okay, but I soon learned that he just had “swag.”

Anyway, does everyone here know who YMCMB is? Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, all those guys? Good. Now, I tend to think this is a silly group with a silly name that makes silly, ridiculous music, but that is not the point. The point is, does anyone know how YMCMB got started?

“Birdman” Makes a Plan

Well, in the early 1990’s, there was a man named Bryan Williams, who fancied himself a rapper. He named himself “Birdman” and started a group called the “Big Tymers,” and he went around to labels, trying to get them to sign him. They refused. “The problem,” they told him, “is that you’re just not very good.”

“Birdman” could have let that stop him. He could have made excuses: “Well, these guys don’t know what they’re talking about. They only know the New York style, and I’m from New Orleans. I have a different style, they just don’t get it!” That was true, his style was different, and the labels didn’t understand. He could have spent his whole life complaining about these studios refusing to give him a chance, and everyone around would have nodded, knowingly.

But instead of making excuses, he decided to make a plan. He taped his songs himself, then went around and sold his tapes, one by one, on street corners. Before too long, he had gained a major following in parts of New Orleans. He began making money, all on his own.

The labels noticed, and they came running back. This time, they offered him a record deal. They offered him the same deal that most musicians got at the time: The studio would make 85% of the money from the songs, and the artist would receive 15%. Birdman made a few calculations, and realized he could make more by continuing to sell on the streets—and keeping 100% of profits—than he could by going through the label. So he turned them down.

The labels weren’t used to that. They made him a better offer. He said no again. They made him a still better offer. He said no again. Finally, he negotiated a deal that was the reverse of the one organically proposed: He kept 85% of the profits, and the label kept 15%. In addition, he maintained “ownership” of the music, rather than ceding those rights to the label. As a result, he was able to make enough money to start his own label, despite selling fewer records than many other artists.

Birdman now has nearly R2 billion, though he still looks like a guy from the streets of New Orleans. He is one of the richest rappers in the world, even though he’s not the most famous or highest selling. And he has been so successful because he was never a person to “make excuses,” but instead decided to “make a plan.”

Jay-Z and Nas

Here is another example, also from hip-hop. In the 1990s in New York, there were a lot of rappers trying to make it big, but two stood out. One was named Nasir Jones, rap name “Nas.” Has anyone heard of him? No? The other’s name was Sean Carter, and his rap name was Jay-Z. Has anyone heard of him? I thought so.

Nas and Jay Z are about the same age, but there was one major difference between them as they were coming up and trying to make it: Nas was a much better rapper than Jay-Z. Both tried to get record deals; Nas succeeded, Jay-Z failed. Nas cut an album, which received rave critical reviews, with some calling it the best rap album ever made. Jay-Z still did not have a deal, and had not made a record.

Again, Jay-Z could have made excuses. He could have complained that he wasn’t getting a fair chance. But instead of making excuses, he made a plan. He started selling music himself. He started his own label. He ran his label so successfully that the larger label eventually brought him in not just as a rapper but as their CEO! He became far more successful than Nas, not because he was a better rapper—he wasn’t—but because he was resilient, he refused to make excuses, and instead he always made a plan.

ASE Scholars: Some Make Excuses, Others Make Plans

Just last week, I saw a group of scholars standing next to the school in the afternoon. I asked them what they were supposed to be doing, and they said they were the soccer team. I asked why they weren’t playing soccer, they said they didn’t have a ball. I asked why they didn’t have a ball, they all pointed to the one boy they believed should have brought the ball. Excuses, excuses, excuses.

Now, they could have trained without a ball. They could have made a ball. They could have pooled their money to buy a ball. There are many plans they could have made, but instead they made excuses.

Here’s the thing: In life, most people make excuses. Most people are comfortable with others who make excuses, so they will encourage you to make excuses. They’ll blame the system, the teacher, their family, their community. If all else fails, they’ll blame sangomas and inyangas and evil spirits. It is very, very easy to make excuses. It is much harder to make a plan.

I’ll give you another example. Many of us here today have financial difficulties. We have a boy in Grade 9, who is no exception. His mother did not make excuses, she made a plan. She decided to set up a vegetable stand in Tsakane and sell vegetables to make an income. The problem was that she didn’t have an actual stand, or a place to set up. She could have used that as an excuse to do nothing, but she didn’t, and neither did her son. He and a friend, another scholar at our school, spent their holiday building her a vegetable stand, which she still uses to this day, to make money for their family. These two boys were in Grade 7 when they did this. That is what it means to make a plan, instead of making an excuse.

I can tell you one thing for sure: in life, you will have troubles. Things will go wrong. Obstacles will occur. Failures will happen. We cannot avoid that. What you do in those situations defines what type of person you will become, and what type of life you will lead. Will you be a person who makes excuses, or will you be a person who makes a plan?

I know that in this school, we have people who will make plans, who will execute on those plans, and who will succeed.

Thank you.