There is no passion to be found in playing small


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29 June 2013:

An earlier post with an updated story – The weird, slightly odd moment when I met Nelson Mandela…

This week Nelson Mandela died at 95 years old. It was twelve years ago when I met Mr Mandela by accident. It was weird, chance meeting up in the sky that had something to do with butterflies, and angels. Here’s what happened…

I was in the line in to the Aer Lingus flight from London to Dublin. Why was it taking so long to get on board? When I entered the plane cabin it became obvious why. Nelson Mandela was sitting in seat 1C. He was on his way to the Special Olympics Everyone was stopping as they passed him to nod and stare.

I sat in seat 4A. “How great is this?” I thought, “How many people get to be on the same plane as Nelson Mandela?” Everyone boarded, the plane left the terminal and as it rolled towards the runway another thought crossed my mind. “How many people have the opportunity to have a conversation with Nelson Mandela, with no where for him to go for an hour?”

I decided I was going to go and have a chat with him. We took off, and immediately I had butterflies in my stomach. What if I went to speak to him and he just laughed at me? What if his bodyguard threw me to the ground in front of everyone? What if I made a fool of myself in front of all the passengers?

The lunch service came and I waited for the trays to be cleared away. Mr Mandela was reading the newspaper. As they cleared the trays I took that moment to get up and walk up to his row – before he had time to put his table away so he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to…

All eyes in the cabin behind me were on me. As I got closer, his bodyguard began to rise. Mr Mandela saw me and motioned to his body guard to sit down. I squatted down next to him in the aisle so I was the same height as him, and I introduced myself. “Hello, Mr Mandela. I’m Roger Hamilton and I’ve flown in from Singapore” I said.

“Singapore! Send my regards to Lee Kuan Yew” he said with a smile, as if the Founding Father of Singapore was my best friend. I told him the reason I had come to say hello is because he was an inspiration to me, and that I had committed my life to support entrepreneurs – that I had been to South Africa recently and spent time with the social entrepreneurs there.

We got into a conversation on how the spirit of entrepreneurship can give people hope to people and lift them out of poverty. He spoke about what he saw happening in South Africa. I spoke about what I was seeing around Asia. I began to stop worrying he was just being polite and became aware of how present he was being, so I became more present too. I think we spoke for maybe twenty or thirty minutes. I lost track of time.

At the end of our conversation I asked him if I could contact him when I was next in South Africa. He laughed and nudged his fellow passenger in Seat 1A, Zelda La Grange, his personal assistant, and said “Speak to the boss.” Then he added, “But you’re young and handsome, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Just buy her a drink.”

Zelda smiled and passed over her business card, and I walked back to my seat. Everyone was watching my return like I had somehow been sprinkled with some magic fairy dust and had been given new superpowers by the man in 1C.

I had always been fearful of just approaching people who I looked up to. The butterflies in my stomach would always stop me from even going up and saying “hello”. That meeting with Nelson Mandela, and how he responded, put the fear I had of meeting world leading change makers – or anyone new, for that matter – behind me. He had the effect on others as well – connecting you to your greater self.

It doesn’t mean I don’t still get butterflies when meeting new people. It just means when I feel the butterflies in my stomach now, I think of them not as butterflies but as fairies appearing, waiting to sprinkle fairy dust. Or maybe angels.

Rest in peace, Mr Mandela.

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