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  • Stella-Monica Mpande

10-Year Challenge: Big Break, Breakdown, Breakthrough!

Updated: Dec 18, 2019

If someone had told me that in 2009, I would be laying a brick foundation to a colorful journey over the next 10 years that would catapult me to one of my greatest career highs then drastically and mercilessly plummet me to one of my lowest moments designed to leave me for dead—only to prompt my reinvention to birth some of my dreams in 2019…I would have shook them in disbelief. (One long sentence…did you breathe?)

This season’s 10-Year Challenge is more than just a before-and-after pic for me. It’s a full-circle life-transformative testimony with five pivotal lessons that I pray you pack with you urgently for 2020.

I have had innumerous dramatic life stories…and here is a summary of one that many don’t know.

See the picture on the left? That was taken at a club in NYC, circa 2009, during my season of training and performing professionally as an actress and writer in NYC. It was a typical Friday night with friends, to unwind from my earlier agenda du jour: transform my body into a versatile instrument earlier in the day through intense character-scene study, then gruesome rehearsals for an Off-Broadway show, followed by powerful and life-changing dance movement classes that equipped me with character development tools, physically strengthened my core and “whipped me into shape”…and I loved it. I soared incredibly high with the fulfillment and joy that burned my spirit and set my soul on fire. So what if I went through blood, sweat, tears, hard grit and my legs felt like rubber and my toes were tip-toeing on sharp pine needles by the end of the day? My heart danced and glided on emotional roller coasters to live the raw truth of any character I delved into—the psychological, dark, traumatized manic or overly-dramatic comedian. My 12-hour days easily poured into more work until 2 or 3 am almost daily, like clockwork.

At a cost.

Not too long after this picture was taken, the toll began…slowly, but surely. Despite my mind, heart and body’s urgent SOS, and earthquake 7.5 Richter-scale warnings to slow down and re-evaluate my life direction, I couldn’t and didn’t know how—blinding me to a weight loss of about 99 -103 lbs of my 5’3 frame. Physical ailments and my family’s insistence on my self-care pushed me to unexpectedly leave NYC, my performing arts program and relocate to NC, where I spent a very dark, bleak year that shifted between medical bedrest and weekly hospital trips, weekly medical injections and eventually, physical rehab.  I had sleepless teary nights, sobbing into my pillows until my puffy red eyes swallowed my gaunt face. I refused to see anyone or take pictures. My family had made countless sacrifices for me,only for me to be physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally helpless. I am supposed to help them out at this age—not the other way around. In my manic state of depression, I’d yell at God about 10 times a day in frustration, then cry out for forgiveness, then bargain and plead for any breakthrough at all before I either took turns at either blaming myself, God or the universe. I left no stone unturned. Or I would lay numb and lifeless, like a corpse awaiting a feast from vultures. I felt that God purposely let my calls to Him go straight to His voicemail. If heaven had a bouncer, I was on his 24/7 block list. Why would I go through acting call-backs, land pivotal roles, make breakthroughs, gain work experiences in great places throughout the country or overseas, excel with academic achievements—maintain humility and integrity…only to result in bigger, long-term doors closed?  Every diverse type of opportunity I’d pursued wholeheartedly and also fought hard, nail and tooth for others to also secure over the past years resulted in my heartbreak and dead ends, leaving me vulnerable. On the most irrelevant end of the spectrum, my dating life was non-existent, so no companionship existed even as a mere pointless distraction. Honestly, dating was furthest from my brain but I added that so-called void to my list of hurts to plunge further in my sadness and self-pity. The memo was clear: God found the utmost joy and pleasure in my struggle and pain.

So what about the legacy I needed to build? Evidently, I had felt the pressure to secure my future here in America in any way possible, especially as an immigrant. Having graduated with three university degrees in fields not related to acting and versatile work experience, I did not pass the test of securing a job during this peak of the economic recession. My childhood dream of the performing arts re-opened when all doors shut, so I passionately threw all of my being into this season.

I felt more pressure because although I had lived in the States for nine years at this point, in many ways, it did not completely quite feel like “home.” I had managed to reinvent myself with new opportunities as needed. But this was harder: I had to transform this season of training into a blossoming career—with no agent, no manager and urgent responsibilities to earn a living and survive. Plan B: I was staring at a one-way plane ticket to return to Uganda, having never lived in Uganda and not knowing where or how to start in a relatively foreign country as a grown adult.  I had no family in the Ivory Coast. And my entire immediate family lived here in the U.S. And with the global recession, the job thing was a bust.

Fortunately, a year later—after releasing anger and finally submitting to prayer and spirituality—I had gained a new self-concept and self-identity. Encouragement and affirmations from family and few friends strengthened my resilience. I started writing scripts and exercising again. I also re-invented a new real-life character I threw myself into: a 2011 applicant of Howard University’s Ph.D. program of what would eventually be called Communication, Culture and Media Studies. My “dark” year slowly transformed into a rejuvenating season of spiritual, emotional, mental and physical rehabilitation for me…Circa 2010/2011, I got accepted into the program and moved to Washington DC. At once, I swam in excitement, fear and pessimism.

At Howard, I discovered lots of surprises: a language to articulate my activist, critical scholarly, entrepreneurial mindset and somewhat controversial global outlook; like-minded, life-long kindred spirits who would mentor me; and deeper insight into the triumphs and hell I had experienced up until then. I gained tools that equipped me to dream more for my future, family and Africa.  Most importantly, I found joy and purpose in how God used my diverse career paths, character, personality type, and renewed faith to connect deeply with different generations, and pour life-transforming energy into almost every walk of life under the sun.

Fast-forward to the picture to the right, 2019…Within these past 10 years, all I have undergone personally, and as a scholar, actor and artist, business professional, producer, passionate advocate of Diasporic affairs—particular Black and African, international development and entrepreneurship—would culminate into the 2019 launch of my media company, AfriKore and other projects coming out over the next few months and into 2020 (God willing).

As we head into 2020, here are my top five lessons that I learned along my journey.

1) First, never lose sight of what you know you are called to do.

It may not look like the detailed plan you anticipated, but so long as your faith persists and your commitment retains, grind until it happens…and keep moving forward. God's plan for you will not waiver.  It may take 10 years after an attempt, 20+ years after its seed was planted inside of you, and look different from your original vision, but it is not null and void.

2) The experiences we endure define and shape our character, which is the only fundamental currency that qualifies you for, and transports you to your next destination.

Build your character, always. In the words of Maya Angelou, people will forget what you do, but they will never forget how you make them feel. Never assume that your circumstances are just about securing project A or winning prize B.  Do you consider yourself to be nothing if you fail or lose these?  Who are you through these experiences? In these contexts, if you have undergone a life-changing experience and you have not permitted yourself to:

a) be transformed spiritually, mentally, psychologically, emotionally; 

b) manifest that transformation externally through new tangible or visible(however small);

c) sincerely acknowledge your humility in your new “platform” or season of success

d) pay your humility forward to strangers or family (or rather, those you have bitten the hands that helped feed you)

then there may still be more lessons for you to learn within that particular realm. Some people confuse a temporary relief from a crisis with a permanent solution to a problem. The truth is, you may have escaped yet another snake bite, but have yet to master survival skills for the wilderness.  

3) And speaking of humility, accept that you never win and succeed on your own.

You are not an island.  Be humble enough to acknowledge God, His angels and those opportunities you should not take for granted.

4) Only when you finally learn to love, value and hold yourself in the highest regard, will you bear sustainable fruit of every thought and work you produce, however small or big.  

For many, this means: pruning old ways of thinking; relinquishing old toxic habits; ditching dead-end social circles; finally shutting the revolving door to past significant others or recurring exes, changing unhealthy professional or personal environments that stifle your progress, and ADDING VALUE with an alternative on this list. Release the security blanket of your past that no longer serves its purpose. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. And the funny thing is, we KNOW what these look like in our lives, yet fear to let go. Know, speak and walk in your worth- tolerate nothing less.

5) Lastly, my favorite: have fun along the way of your process and journey!

Smile lots, laugh harder. Work smart and hard, but do not enslave yourself to anyone's agenda, timeline or the world's pressures! Live at your own rhythm.  Embrace your unique journey. No one can walk it better than you! And for me, personally, this means finding joy, truth and peace in who God has designed me to be and what He has called me to do on my journey.

And speaking of unique journeys, stay tuned for an AfriKore surprise next week!!!

…but until then, what is a key or valuable lesson you’ve learned in 2019 to guide our 2020? Share here!  

Cheers ☺

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