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An idea is nothing unless you take that first step

person holding a clear lightbulb against the backdrop of a sky

Ping! The idea.

This is the birth-point. When it all starts. When the key is put into the ignition and the car starts. This is when you have the idea, spot the market need, see the gap that needs to be filled, when you have the aha! moment.

Or, like me, a vague sense of destiny, a calling to make your little corner of the world a better place by building a successful business and going on a quest to find it. And for many of us, it comes in different ways—a dream, a tragedy, an unfulfilled need, from a book or from countless other sources.

As I write this, my daughter, Nshira, has just won the most outstanding enterprising student in her key stage group in the whole of the UK for 2021.

Her idea is incredibly simple, which most brilliant inventions seem to be—a subscription model app which showcases the rich diversity of the world to a paying customer—in an age where so much information is freely available, but so little learning is done; an age where we seem to have lost all sense of sharing, of listening, of understanding, of reaching out across the aisle.

As a father, I am incredibly proud, of course. But it also highlights a very obvious fact—the idea is not the issue.

How likely is it that my daughter can turn this idea she birthed with her team into a million-dollar thriving business that solves one of the world’s pressing problems—racism, bigotry, and distrust?

What are the odds that two years from now that idea will be buried in the bowels of her Lenovo laptop under a pile of documents, subjects, downloads, and papers in preparation for her A-levels? That the award she received would just be gathering dust on her shelf beside one of her most prized possessions, a vinyl by Tyler the Creator? The idea is not the issue.

Chances are that if you’ve picked up my book, or you have had to buy it for a course, you have a good idea of the business you want to start.

But even if you don’t, it’s okay because it will find you. How do you know it’s the one? Your heart beats faster every time it comes to you. It scares you to death, but you are strangely convinced and compelled. It keeps you up in the dead of night. It tells you that there is something more, that you weren’t made for the mundane, simple life you’re now living.

For Tony Kofi, the famous award-winning Ghanaian-British saxophonist, the prospect of death literally turned his life around.

It was spring 1981, and the 16-year-old carpentry apprentice in Nottingham, England was working on replacing the old roof of a house. He wanted to impress so badly that he offered to work during his lunch break.

He was three stories high and was sawing a two-by-four length of wood. “I didn’t saw it properly, and it splintered,” he recalls, speaking on a recent podcast on BBC Sounds with Jane Garvey.

“It caught my sleeve and took me down,” he added.

He began to fall. He thought to himself, “I’m going to die. There’s no way I can survive this.” So, he completely relaxed, let go, and closed his eyes.

That’s the moment his purpose found him.

Tony Kofi playing the saxophone
Tony Kofi found his purpose after a near-death experience. Finding yours needn’t be that dramatic…

As he was falling, pictures and visions flashed through his eyes. People he’d never seen. Images of places to which he’d never travelled. But the big one—he was standing up and playing an instrument. An instrument he’d never seen in his life.

Then everything went black.

After three weeks in hospital with a cracked skull, severe head trauma, and severe emotional stress, he was sent home to recover with compensation and an open invitation to go back to work. But he couldn’t shake the image of the instrument from his mind. He was obsessed, and he’d kept it to himself for obvious reasons. He had no idea what the instrument was.

He finally went through numerous pictures in books about instruments and found out what he’d been seeing. A saxophone.

So, he used all his compensation, £50 (around £500 pounds in today’s money), bought one, quit his carpentry job, and started practicing, sometimes for 8 to 10 hours a day. He refused to go back to his job despite pleas from his parents.

His parents thought the fall had messed up his head. But he said to them, “If you make me go back to carpentry, I might as well have died in that fall.” They let him alone after that.

And to make things worse, he got rejected by music schools in the UK because he had no qualifications.

So, one day, about seven years after the incident, he turned his attention to the US and applied to go study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the most prestigious music schools in the world.

And they let him in, with an audition, but without any qualifications. So, in 1988, the then-24-year-old left the UK to study music.

After his graduation, his first album, All Is Know, won the BBC Jazz Award in 2005. Then the awards kept coming. Another award in 2008. An honorary professorship from Nottingham University. A 2008 MOBO nomination and a Presto Music award in 2020.

Not bad for a 16-year-old, music-illiterate carpenter apprentice.

I shudder to think what would have happened if he had just done nothing about that experience and gone back to being a carpenter as, no doubt, 99 percent of people would probably have done.

You may be slaving now in a sell-out job, or a shadow career, as Steven Pressfield calls it. You may be jumping from place to place or career to career. But there will be always be a conviction that scares you to death, won’t let you go, that grapples with you all day and night.

The issue is what will you do with the idea or conviction? Will it be relegated to the back shelves of your mind as a relic of the past? Will you even remember that you had an idea five years from now?

There is a war raging, and you have to make a choice. What you do with that idea will determine the path you take.

You need to take that first step.

  • This an excerpt from Steven Adjei’s ‘Pay the Price’, available here.