• Irũngũ Houghton

Career, relationships and service: Reflections of a 50 year old



2020 marks two significant career-points for me. I earned my first salary in late 1990. This month, I crossed the mid-point on my contract as Amnesty International Executive Director. Over the last thirty years, my only real achievement has been the ability to distinguish my purpose in life and my career.


The title, power, privilege or visibility that comes with being the chief strategist of one of Kenya’s largest and most influential human rights organisations is useless, if it is not used to protect the rights and freedoms of all Kenyans. What turns yesterday’s freedom fighter into today’s dictator is simply that they have lost their inability to see the public interest beyond their personal interests, ego and fears.


As a younger Irũngũ I grappled with confidence, tact and a long-term vision for my work. The older Irũngũ grapples with patience and the possibility that I will not have done enough by the time I die. This occurs for some as a personal intensity and can be discomforting. Paraphrased, Paulo Coelho speaks to this trait best. Our lives will see many storms. Most will catch us by surprise. We have to learn that we have no real control over the weather, exercise patience and respect as we engage the fury of our environment. Though I sometimes forget, this applies to all areas of our lives.


You would have thought having a series of intimate relationships since I was fourteen and having been married twice, I would have a manual on this by now. I don’t. A younger, wiser colleague described how she and her husband have organized their marriage around reproductive, productive and social responsibilities. They share expectations and agree targets and actions around caring for each other, their careers and lastly, the communities around them. Distinguishing this is important for all couples. It is too easy for our careers, causes or communities to block out the other areas of our lives.


I started parenting twenty years ago. All of the children are now adults. Some of them are now parents themselves. Over the years, there have been difficult periods. I made misjudgments and mistakes with my time and how to really listen to my children when they were young. I tried to apply what I saw with my parents. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

I now understand that our children are not our children. They are independently minded human beings that we as their parents have the privilege of being able to protect, provide and mentor them to serve their family and society. While it would be nice if they would take care of us when my wife and I are unable, I have released my children of this as an obligation.


I grew up in a financially secure household. It was not only when I had created my home that I realized, the challenges and sacrifices my parents had made while we were growing up. I have no insatiable financial ambition in life or an intense desire to accumulate assets and gamble. My weakness is probably electronic gadgets and tools. Knowing this, I have placed a financial cap on how much I would spend on laptops, phones, televisions and sound systems.


Life occurs for me at this point of my life as fast and fluid. I have been told this comes with age. The number of hours in a day have not changed since I started working in 1990. I have simply got older and mentally slower. This could be true, but I also do think that if you are living your purpose, you attract the universe towards you. It doesn’t show up in a neat straight queue in front of you. The challenge is how to create the personal systems that powerfully harness and share with others all the opportunities that come your way.


This year, Amnesty will create a mentorship program for our members. The team is passionate about supporting young Kenyans to ethically and powerfully raise their communities up to the national values in our constitution. I look forward to personally supporting this as one way of paying forward all I have got from those that mentored me.


As we lean into 2020, I am fascinated with emergent thinking, a relatively new organizational theory. It asserts that the world is designed to come at us fast and from different directions at the same time. The only question is whether we are prepared, moment by moment, to use the strong winds it brings to transform the areas of our life that are important to us. Rather than umbrellas, we need sails to harness the wind. These sails are imagination, audacity and resilience and we need them in all areas of our lives.


I wish you all a happy, safe and dignified new decade.


This reflection was solicited and partially published by the Sunday Standard January 20, 2020.

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