“Excellence 101: How to be Human… and Woke!”

“Excellence 101: How to be Human… and Woke!”

By: Dr. Jenny Lind D. Elmaco-Cardenas
| Director, Strategic Partnerships

Title: “Excellence 101: How to be Human…and Woke!”
by Dr. Jenny Lind D. Elmaco-Cardenas
at the 61st Honors Day Convocation, February 11, 2019, Silliman University Gym


After that introduction, I can’t wait to hear what I’m going to say.

They say you get invited here when you do something cool, so, I guess the question to ask Silliman is, what took you so long?

I am a pure blood. I started studying in Silliman when I was 4 years old. But I have been away for quite some time. I was brought back by Dr. Betty McCann who has a vision for our Alma Mater that resonates to me. The Silliman spirit cannot be quantified or explained but it is felt and that is why I am here.

The title of my talk is “Excellence 101: How to be Human…And Woke!”

Before I start, today is the International Day of Women and Science. So, as a self-confessed geek, let me tell you some things because God forbid you only think that inventions were made by men. Here are just some of them:

Let’s start with Marie Curie, who I have the honor to be associated with: She became the first woman to receive a PhD from a French university, as well as the first woman to be employed as a professor at the University of Paris. Not only was she the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, but also the first person (man or woman) ever to win the award twice and for achievements in two distinct scientific fields: Physics and Chemistry.

Ada Lovelace is “the first computer programmer.”

Hedy Lamarr’s invention of a secret communications system during World War II for radio-controlling torpedoes, employing “frequency hopping” technology, laid the technological foundations for everything from Wi-Fi to GPS. She also happened to be a world-famous film star; gorgeous and brilliant.

The chemist Stephanie Kwolek invented the super-strong Kevlar fibre, used to make bulletproof vests. Kwolek’s invention is five times stronger than steel, and also has about 200 other uses.

The dishwasher was invented by Josephine Cochrane. I thank her for that every day.

Nancy Johnson invented the ice cream freezer, patenting a design which is still used to the current day, even after the advent of electric ice cream makers.

Marie Van Brittan Brown invented the system for closed-circuit television security or CCTV.

Oh yeah, we created beer. Beer historian Jane Peyton claims that ancient Mesopotamian women were the first to develop, sell, and even drink beer. So, remember that. Think about a life without ice cream.

If you thought you invited me here to talk about how great all of you are, how you must be proud of yourselves, how the world is pretty lucky to have you, you are mistaken.

Before we celebrate your success, my goal today is to make you uncomfortable, to make you uneasy, reasonably disturbed and moved to action.

You are here because your grades say you have done brilliantly. Your teachers say you are the best in your class. That you are the epitome of excellence.

But as Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.”

We live at a time of division, of fragmentation, of distrust.

We live in an interconnected world, where effects of decisions and choices transcend boundaries, where revolutions span regions and where tipping points can be made by anyone, anywhere.

Consider these statistics:

It is a harsh reality to accept that almost 3 billion around the world, almost half of the world’s population, live in relative poverty without access to better employment opportunities and hence the chance for a better lifestyle. The ILO and Unicef called for greater social protection for children as estimates represent that out of 2.2 billion children in the world; almost 1 billion of them live in poverty. A large portion of these children are condemned to harsh living conditions, constant hunger, lack of access to safe water, and the inability to go to school from an early age. In just one day, estimates show that over 30,000 children die from starvation, disease, hunger, malnutrition and inadequate living conditions.

The Philippines is facing the fastest-growing epidemic of HIV in the Asia-Pacific region according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Just a few days ago, a bomb exploded in Jolo and it wasn’t so long ago when the beautiful city of Marawi was destroyed. We live in a time of extinction, of deaths, of pain, of war…and fake news.

I hope that as you celebrate your laurels, you continue to ask the question: What does the world need? I hope you continue to be uncomfortable with lies, to be uneasy with deception, and to squirm in the presence of injustice.

From #shookt to #woke.

You see as one becomes a leader, as doors open, as you see celebration, then you feel more confident and yes, more powerful.

Power makes it very hard for us to feel and understand what other people feel and understand – the more powerful you become, the less authentic your leadership. Be careful because power disconnects us from the connections that sustain us.

Unlike those who are satisfied and those who settle, you were born to stand out. You have the ability to see the world in lenses many do not possess. You have the skill to make impossible things possible; to question what can be done, to go beyond limits. Our role is to shake things up; to not accept that this is just where we are supposed to be, that we should just accept things as they are. We should be loud enough to know that things could be better.

We are made for: Creative disruption. Beautiful trouble. Infectious ripples.

But as we do this, it is important to keep your principles. Find out what your non-negotiables are. Sometimes the road is not only lonely, but treacherous with snakes along the way.

When I joined the Presidential Staff, I was one of if not the youngest, especially in my rank. I was wide-eyed arriving in Manila, with my broken Tagalog, armed with my intelligence, and clothed in idealism sprinkled with naiveté. The Palace received some calls from politicians and bureaucrats on why I was the choice, a probinsyana, from a school they barely know when there are other graduates from the top Manila schools. And the President, I heard, said simply: because she is my choice. She believed in me and despite everything, I respect her for that. So I did my best, and I chose my path. It reminded me of the oft-quoted phrase in 1 Timothy 4:12: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.”

So, I’d like to give you 7 Lifehacks to Leadership Excellence:

  1. The first is that excellence is a habit.

As a leader, consistency is key; not just in grades, but in life. But excellence is not without its imperfections.

We, unfortunately, live at a time of smart-shaming. “Ikaw na.” “You na.” Those who present a different way of thinking are othered, a danger to normality, and are considered outsiders who do not understand the ordinary Filipino. Those who have opinions that are not the same as the masa are thought to be part of a counterculture are thought to be hambog (arrogant), elitista (elitist), and matapobre (anti-poor).To paraphrase Isaac Asimov: The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge. The culture of intelligence should be more dominant: education, intellectual awareness, and the pursuit of knowledge should be encouraged—even expected.

Be proud that you are brilliant; own it, but use it to heal the world and make it a better place.

Excellence finds its way not only to report cards or Latin honors but also, and more importantly, in values, in principles, in the standard you create for yourself.

My friends say I am eccentric, which is a fancy way of saying I am crazy. I think many of us who have a good head on their shoulders get this comment. Many times we have ideas that are thought to be out of this world or way beyond this time.

Remember this quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” The misfits? They rule the world.

  1. The second is to learn to differentiate the signal from the noise.

We have an abundance of #FakeNews.

According to research done by New York and Princeton Universities on who spreads fake news, their investigation led them straight to… your Lolo.

Well, maybe not your Lolo specifically. He might be a politically and technologically savvy guy. But their stories revealed that older people are nearly four times as likely to share fake news as Millennials.

And who to look up to? Nope. Not you, Millennials. But Gen Z. Generation Z born after 2001, and today represents one third of the world’s 7.7 billion people. Not only was their birth captured by social media, they had social media profiles before they were potty-trained. This generation has a very strong BS meter. They know authentic when they see it and they have the filters to use.

So, the way to do it is to have intergenerational learning. Because there is a lot to learn from our elders, they did thrive before OOTDs, hashtags and cellphones.

But we also have to take it upon ourselves to set our own filters, to research a bit more, to not only depend on information but to check if the information is legitimate and to transform this information to knowledge and wisdom.

  1. Find a mentor, not just those with suffixes after their names but also those despite the difficulties, made a name.

Find mentors from the School of Formal Learning and the School of Hard Knocks.

I look up to a lot of people: most of them mavericks, a lot of them are audacious enough to hope for a better way. Here are some of the people I admire: the diplomatic skills of Ambassador Delia Albert and our very own Ambassador Kira Danganan-Azucena; the business acumen of Jaime Zobel de Ayala and our very own Mariano Lao; the way Jeannie Javelosa weaves artistry and psyche just like our very own Maria Taniguchi; peace advocate and my former boss Edit Schlaffer, Amina Rasul and our very own Kuya Al Fuertes; the brilliance of Elon Musk and our very own Atty. Myrish Cadapan-Antonio. You see what I did there? For every person I admire, there is an equivalent Sillimanian alumnus/alumna who is moving and shaking the world for the better.


I am a girl from the barrio. Two of my greatest mentors whom I love are my maternal grandparents. Both did not finish elementary school, just enough to read and write and never had a Latin word after their name or a prefix before. But they had the greatest wisdom, the best advice that has always been my balance and has kept my feet firmly on the ground. My grandparents taught be to love the earth, they taught me pride at harvesting, following the roots and finding the hidden carrots and camote (sweet potatoes). My grandfather also swears by fresh tuba as a cure to all illnesses. They also taught me the importance of a sundang, that sometimes you don’t need shoes, the rocks give good massages and keep your feet soles healthy, that your best friend is the kalabaw, to not mess around with geese – and I learned this the hard way. To this day, when a goose gives me weird looks, I run. They believed that there is always a way even when it is difficult to see one; that even when things were hard, we can always have fun; that a smile is the most important thing to give; that there is beauty in simplicity and that sometimes having enough is having the best.

I miss them dearly.

So whether you have a mentor from an Ivy League or the School of Hard Knocks, learn from them.

  1. Plan A but be open to Plan B.

Plan B does not mean second-rate. Benjamin Franklin once said, nothing in this world can be said to be certain…only death and taxes. There will be times when life sends off a curve ball and you will have to do Plan B. Sometimes our Plan A does not work no matter how much we will it to be.

I had a Plan A. My first course was medical technology as a preparatory to med school. I wanted to be a neurosurgeon when I was little. But two years on and after a year in Japan as an exchange student, I realized I didn’t have the skill nor the silence to finish my course. The skill because my hands were shaky. I could not be trusted with a beaker, needle, or scalpel. The silence because I could not do laboratory work without not talking. I felt claustrophobic when there was no noise.

But, I told myself, I can make a Plan B. And I will always be thankful that I trusted myself to let go. Because I cut that rope that was anchored to what I thought was a smart, comfortable and safe life, and I was able to discover new oceans. Because I failed my Plan A, I was able to enjoy an exciting Plan B; one that challenged me, took me all over the world, from sharing my dreams with camels to debating with ambassadors and speaking in front of leaders. Don’t punish yourself for not following Plan A. A blogger put it when life hands you banana peels, slide, learn and move on. Or as I say it, stumble, dust yourself off and try again.

  1. Learn to say “no.” 

Do not allow people to strip your identity or deny you freedom to be who you are. Don’t allow people to bully you either.

I remember someone I corrected from cutting in line. He turned to me and said: “Do you know who I am?” And I calmly answered him, “Why? Did you forget who you are?”

Bullies have no place in society. Period.

I have to be very honest that sometimes people disappoint you. Even those who you think are close to you. Some will be jealous of your success. Some will be happy with your missteps. Not all people will celebrate with you. That’s alright. But don’t allow people to trample all over you. Don’t take their crap. As a famous beauty brand sells it, “Because I’m worth it.” Because you’re worth it.

Don’t give people permission to walk over you and to dismiss you like garbage. You are beautifully and wonderfully made. Remember that.

Know your worth and learn to say, “Enough.” There is no shame in putting yourself first. In another matter, there is also no shame in asking for help. It does not make you weak.

Learn to know your limits. Learn to set boundaries. And don’t forget to take care of yourself.

  1. Keep learning. 

Grades do not define you.

Of course, we salute those who graduated with honors. I graduated at the top but these did not matter so much when I started working. Truth be told, it was my debate skills that gave me an edge. Some of my friends who are very successful with their jobs gave me the reason why they were good at their jobs: Creativity; the ability to talk with people and listen; to crack jokes at the right times; to take initiative; to hunger for knowledge; to want not just to know but understand; and yes, to be able to sing even if off-key and to go and dance your heart out – these matter more than a flat 4.

I love what Noam Chomsky said: “Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and inquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us. That’s far more significant than passing tests and, in fact, if that’s the kind of educational career you’re given the opportunity to pursue, you will remember what you discovered.”

Harnessing my speaking skills brought me to a lot of podiums and stages. When I presented at the Palais Egmont in Brussels for the very first time, I gripped on my seat and stared at my name plate. When I was asked by a Director General of the EU what I was doing, I told him, I still remember gripping on the handles of my aunt’s bicycle on the way home from school. I remember going through potholes and shooing cows along the way, this is surreal. To which he replied, “Same here, but our cows had bells.”

Sidebar: Sometimes we forget that people had some simple beginnings even if they are from the more advanced nations and they kept learning, improving and becoming the best versions of themselves.

  1. Find a cause greater than yourself. 

Last Saturday, I was in Zamboanga for a talk on leadership. Zamboanga holds a special place in my heart as we had several beautiful programs there when I was still working with the Spanish government. One of our programs was the Mangiskul nga Bangka, a floating classroom for the indigenous peoples (IPs) of Mindanao – the seafarers, the Badjao. We had a little resistance on the project in the beginning; for one, because it was done in the place where the rebels of the Mindanao siege started to terrorize. It was home of displaced people. Another reason was that some people thought it would just be a waste; that it was unsustainable to have a classroom on the water. I had supported this project from the beginning and I had stood my ground when it came to supporting the IPs. The first time we saw the boat classroom, I was very happy but nothing could have prepared me from the sight of women and children beaming, smiling, clapping, dancing and shouting, “Magsukol, magsukol” (Thank you, thank you). Finally, a mother said, “Our very own classroom.” When I asked her mother, who was wiping her tears, why it was so important to them, she answered me: “People almost always forget us or they want to help us in their own terms. What they always neglect is that we are people of the sea. We continue to live if we have the sea.” Her grandson chimed in, “The sea is life.”

I realized so many things that day and one of the most important was to look at the things not from your lenses but from the lenses of others; that we don’t know the whole story. A story from our own views, our own perspective, is incomplete. To understand, we have to step out of ourselves and see it from the eyes of others.

What do you see? And from what you see, what will you do?

I was fascinated at what young people can accomplish when motivated. One of the programs of 16 year-olds that was shared last Saturday at the Ateneo was to stop using coal and use more alternative and cleaner sources of energy. The campaign they had was called the “Hugot sa Climate Project.” Their call to action: “Toxic na kayo ka. Coal-off na ta. Di na ko ka ginhawa. I need space. Coal-off na ta.”

What creativity. What promise. What conviction to change the world. And all of you have that capacity. You all have this power.

Let me leave you with this quote by Marianne Williamson:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Dream big. Be brave. Choose to be great. And remember that impossible is only temporary. So, go, cue your fight song. Congratulations!