Possible Impossible Ratio: Role Models and Mentors as Tools for Human and Societal Development

February 22, 2019

Warning: This article was written by a wanderer. Expect digressions. Danke Sehr. 

Two boys grew up in different neighbourhoods. Let’s call one Bayo and the other Shola. Bayo grew up in a rural-urban community in the heart of Ibadan. His mother and father are separated and he now lives with his grandma. Both his parents barely support his education and have instead pursued new lives with their new partners far away from him. Incidentally, most of his friends are from similarly unstable homes. Based on this experience, he has built his view of his expectations and responsibilities should he get married or hooked up with anyone. He has also built his view of his responsibilities to his child, should he have one. In school, he has cultivated a few friends, a good number who are also like him and have little exposure beyond their immediate communities. Their first role models, their parents, have not exactly provided an enviable way to live a happy and responsible life. However, since that is all some of them know and see around them, they will eventually grow to be like them. Another set of role models they will often find, are the ones who have managed to be financially successful in their communities, who drive the best cars and have the best apartments. More often than not, these are often people who have cut it through consistent dirty dealings. They are usually dropouts as well. As Bayo grows, he knows only this kind of life and his view on how to become a better version of his current state is directly motivated by the experiences and exposure that his community affords him. Unfortunately, his school is also not well equipped to help him see different kinds of lives or possibilities that he could compare with these. Unless through some miraculous intervention, Bayo will end up just like his father, or other people that he feels have led comparably better lives, whatever that means. What is dangerous is not that Bayo has limited options, it is that he does not believe he could be anymore than those things.

Unlike Bayo, Shola comes from a wealthy family. His parents are separated too, but he attends one of the best schools in Lagos. He has several friends who come from both stable and unstable homes and has the luxury to choose the kind of home he would like to have. In school, he has access to a good library and internet. The school also organizes tours to a number of countries and also to different companies so Shola and other students can meet successful people across different backgrounds. He is able to talk with different people from different walks of life about their lives and careers. Shola has tons of ideas on how he could live his life and what he needs to do to build that kind of life and reach great heights. He does not have to settle, because the people around him, as well as his school, have empowered his view of the world by bringing him closer to more that is possible. They have let him know that his options are unlimited and he only needed to choose.       

It is easy to overlook the importance of mentors and role models when you have visionary and excellent people as colleagues, friends, family members, partners or close associates. In one way or another, these people serve as the compass through which you navigate your life. The truth is that we are often limited in our view of the world until someone points out even more possible things. Before we get new knowledge, it often almost appears that nothing exists outside the things we know. While we know we don’t know everything, we don’t know what we don’t know. That limits the kinds of initiatives we can take. However, once we know what we don’t know, it is often easier to find and know those things.

The electromagnetic spectrum is a great example of how we can be limited by the things we know. Within the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light is the only radiation that is seen by the human eye. Therefore, for a long time, it was thought to be the only type of light (or radiation) that existed. It was not until 1800, that William Herschel discovered the infrared while conducting a thermal experiment in a laboratory. He even termed it “the light that cannot be seen”. The following year, another scientist, Johann Ritter, discovered the Ultraviolet Light also known as the invisible light induced by chemical reactions. And on it went till all members of the current electromagnetic spectrum were discovered using one technique or the other. In the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light represents just a small fragment of the range of frequencies radiation travels. One of the lovely discovery was definitely the microwave. I still marvel at the possibility of the microwave oven heating my food while the container remains at its normal temperature. I’m usually like wow, what sorcery! Yet, it is important to look back and dwell in the knowledge that if there had not been any advancement in science, it may have been the only kind of radiation men knew, and perhaps the only kind of radiation he thought existed. The most important thing is that he would have also lived his life based on the truth that that was the only kind of radiation that existed. We would have lived without the microwave and we would have lived fine. Fine, but limited.


A Simple Analogy: A World Of Worlds

Imagine this; next to football with 4 billion followers is cricket with 2.5 billion fans. Yet most fans of football cannot mention one famous cricket player which would be an easy and obvious guess for a person who follows cricket. There are people who know nobody in these two sports. This means that the things that constitute the realities of a person who follows cricket are different from that of a person who follows football. Thus the social laws which are deemed impossible to live without may just be non-existent in the other person’s life. Think about that.

While many of us, especially geeks, have entertained the idea of the multiverse, we should also realize that in our world, we have several worlds, all of which work in tandem with one another and also in isolation. The world of a young boy living in Oja Oba, Ibadan who goes to a public school not too far away from home, consists of peculiar characters, pains, joys, role models, possibilities and demands is different from that of a young boy in Lekki who goes to a very private school also close to his home, has unlimited access to the internet, loves baseball and travels at will. The world of a boy who lives on water in Makoko, Lagos, is different from the world of the Fulani boy roving the Northern hinterlands. A person is limited to the possibilities of his own world.

Each person will require help to know what is possible in other worlds. While we may never be able to understand what is going on in every possible world, it is good that we have the liberty to reach worlds that are important to our progress so we are not limited in our potentials. One of the best ways to enter a new world is through another person who lives that world. Close interactions and sometimes brief chats can be all we need to launch the expansion of our views of what is possible and what we can aspire to be.

We Need Other People’s Lenses to Have A Better View of the World

People get exposure in different ways. Some through books, some through travel, others through consistent interaction with people who have made significant progress or failures in their lives. The more exposure one has, the higher the likelihood of making life and career decisions that are more fulfilling and liberating.

The kind of exposure a person has also affects the things the person considers possible or impossible. Most times, the difference between those who are successful at maximizing their potentials and those who are not, asides tenacious execution, is simply that those who are successful have a wider range of the things they consider possible; which enables them shoot for them. I call this the Possible Impossible Ratio.

The Possible Impossible Ratio is a subjective analysis of what a person believes he/she is capable of doing to the things he/she believes is impossible or almost impossible to do. Note that this is an analysis directed at one’s self. It does not affect what you think others are capable of doing because in the end, you are not them.  

It is hackneyed advice that one should believe one can achieve the seemingly impossible (anything) e.g. landing on the moon, scoring maximum marks in UTME, becoming a billionaire, breaking a world record and so on. Yet this is usually relative. What we often overlook is that impossibilities are at different stretches for different people. Two young people may be starting their careers as designers in a small firm. One dreams and believes he can eventually become a top designer with billions in revenue, while the other believes what is possible is that he reaches the top of their current firm and earn millions in salaries. The latter may even be aware of the former’s goals, but he just believes that they are far-fetched. It is possible that the latter, after believing that he can do it, achieves his goal, while the former doesn’t. What is also true is that the latter will not reach the heights of the former, because you cannot hit what you don’t aim for, and what you aim for is in the boundaries of what you think is possible (even if it appeared impossible at that time). Keep in mind that every rule comes with exceptions.

Therefore, one of the best ways to help Bayo and expand Bayo’s view of the world is to bring him in close interaction with people who live different lives, especially ones which he can aspire to have. These people are role models and mentors. Creating this close interaction means that Bayo can begin to use his drive to seek something greater and better than what he has experienced and what his local community has provided as the best. In addition, he can start to seek information, that these people do not provide him, on his own because he has been shown how unlimited he can be; his ship has been set to sail. This way, Bayo’s Possible Impossible Ratio would have significantly improved.

An expected result is that he approaches his obstacles, with much more resolve, because he now has bigger things to pursue. This does not mean Bayo does not need quality education in a good school, it means pending the time he gets that, he will make the most of what he has, and will stop at nothing to get to where he believes is now possible.



This article provides some foundation to one of my experiments in improving the quality of education delivered in Nigeria. There are millions of young people like Bayo who would do better with their lives if you help them widen their horizons. And doing so is not more difficult than getting some hundreds of thousands of people to spend time with Bayo and his mates at their convenience to share their experiences, insights and thoughts on important things. The outcome is much more than helping Bayo build a better career, it is also to help him become a responsible citizen who makes informed life choices. We may also help Bayo learn critical 21st-century soft skills that put more power in his hands.  This activity also happen in isolated and often discontinued situations. The question is if we can deliver this more sustainably and at scale. 

I have begun talking to some principals in public schools about this. So far, 23 public school principals in Ibadan have indicated interest and put in their contacts to be part of this program. I am hoping to get more before I move to the next stage which is talking to people who want to share their time with young students at their convenient time, as well as completing the design for how this would work effectively and at scale (since this already happens effectively in isolated events). I hope to share my progress as I move forward. 


Habeeb X

Wandering Wanderer.

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