What does it mean to be a man? Surely, it’s not one thing. It’s a series of little moments that add up.
“Man Like” is a weekly Zikoko series documenting these moments to see how it adds up. It’s a series for men by men, talking about men’s issues. We try to understand what it means to “be a man” from the perspective of the subject of the week.
The subject of today’s Man Like is Justin Irabor. He talks about how and why men should be responsible, the role of friendships in his life, and the things necessary for everyone to live a happy life.
When did you get your “Man now” moment?
I’ve been independent since I was a teen. But even then, I didn’t consider myself a man. I was just a boy who was hustling. It was during my NYSC year that I considered myself a man, which was weird because I had full-time employment before going for NYSC.
In my NYSC year, a set of conditions emerged — I was living on my own, I had an asshole for a boss, and I was suddenly teaching and imparting young kids with wisdom. Back in university, I had roommates who were like father figures to me and coupled with the fact that I was the youngest in the room, I used to defer to them in terms of life experience. At my job before NYSC, my boss was also a father figure. Now, here I was with a boss who was an asshole and living alone far away from home. To me, that was my “man now” moment.
Whew. What was the hardest part for you?
I was happy to be away from home, so I don’t think that any part was hard. Rent at the time was ₦25,000 per year and I was earning close to ₦100,000 per month.
If I had to pick, I’ll say the hardest part was dealing with my boss at work. He was an asshole who was constantly flirting with the corpers. He’d ask me to cut my hair and change my clothes and I’d refuse. I could have done all he asked, but I wanted to antagonise him so I guess I was reaping the fruits of my labour. The beauty was that he couldn’t do much to me because I was always technically correct. And that’s how my life has been: being technically correct.
Lmao. Does anything/anyone even scare you?
What scares and drives me is not doing, to the fullest of my ability, the things I believe myself able to. People who know me call me “multipotentialite” because I can do a lot of things fairly well. Though they generally over-index on my ability to do things — I’m not as good as the reports say, but I appreciate the sentiment. It’s good PR.
What scares me is the obscure idea of people saying the “boy is good” while I know that I could be better. I don’t jump up when people say I’m good because I feel like the anime villain who’s supposed to say, “You fool, I’m only at 10% of my power [Laughs].” I don’t think I’ve given anything a hundred percent. That’s also part of the reason I empathise with Ryan Reynolds. You can tell that he has the potential to be a bigger star but he just coasts. You know he’s great but when you look at his filmography, you don’t see anything major outside of maybe Deadpool.
One of my greatest fears is that I’m going to go through life being vaguely awesome. There are people who are clearly awesome and have a defined body of work to prove it. I feel like I have to do something like that to show that Justin is great and here is proof. Right now there are scatterings of my greatness, and I don’t have a coherent body of work. I’m working towards changing it and everything in my life is fuelled by the desire to do my best work.
Love it. What gives you joy though?
Most of the things that give me joy are fairly recent because I wasn’t particularly a joyful person. These days, I find joy in what makes a person amazing. Anytime I look at a person and I find what makes them great, I go ahead to tell them. It’s a very small thing but it makes me very happy. It’s one of those things that are bi-directional because it benefits both the person and yourself. It works this way: if you’re spot-on in your assessment, they will remember you as someone who saw their true nature, and they are incentivized to push for greatness. If you’re an employer, it’s a great instinct to have, knowing what unique traits individuals in your team have, waiting to be activated.
I get some joy from supporting my family. I get some joy from being in a relationship with someone who gets me. Until very recently, I genuinely believed there was something wrong with me on the relationship front because the things that people used to complain about me were almost the same thing masked in different forms: “Justin is a cold son of a bitch.” But I don’t feel cold. I feel like a very warm person. It’s such a relief to not feel the need to suppress core aspects of my being which was not always the case in previous relationships. I am with someone who gets me and that’s liberating.
I’m also happy to be a software developer.
Tech bro, pls do giveaway.
You said something about growing up independent, so who did you go to for advice growing up?
My problem was doubly difficult because I’m super independent and also super proud to the point of arrogance. I never went to anyone for advice, and I figured out life on my own. In fact, whenever my brother asks me for advice, I admire him because he has something I don’t have: the presence of mind to ask for help. One of the reasons I’m a voracious reader is because I don’t want to ask anyone for advice. Whatever topic I don’t know about, I read up on. I have people who inspire me, but I mostly don’t reach out to them for advice. Once I have a problem, I take long walks and speak to myself. Between myself and me, we might come to some form of idea on how to begin to think about the problem. Sometimes I might talk to people. But typically I talk to people when I have a couple of ideas in place and need them to see what I have moved around in my head.
Interesting. What do you think you could have done better if you had someone giving advice?
In my first job, my boss offered to split my salary 50/50 — 50 cash and 50 in stocks. I didn’t take the advice because my dad was already splitting my salary 50/50. But sometimes, and not because the stock would have been great, I wish I had taken that offer because that advice would have jump-started my interest in money.
Another advice I wish I had taken was when I had a breakdown in 2016 — a very private, quiet event — nothing dramatic. At the time, someone told me that the reason for my breakdown was that I was angry with the world because I thought I deserved better. He told me that to think I deserve better meant I felt my life had more intrinsic value than the life of a boy who sells pure water on the street. Naturally, I was upset because I thought the person was downplaying my frustrations because mental health is a super delicate affair. I thought about this for a while and I came to the conclusion that as far as life was concerned, I was not owed anything. In fact, with the way I grew up, I should have been worse than I was. I had done well for myself but I could not see it because I was always thinking about doing better, and that’s what triggered my breakdown.
I’m sorry mahn.
After that incident, my philosophy on life changed. I put my head down and started to let my work speak for me. If I had taken that advice sooner, I’d have arrived at where I currently am sooner. Because right now, I’m content. I’m not earning a billion dollars or riding the latest car neither do I have a house to my name but I’m content. This contentment fuels my obsession with my craft [whatever I’m working on] because I’m not thinking about being the best at it. I just want to be good at it because it seems like a noble pursuit. If I happen to earn an income and be wealthy as a result, that’d be great.
Please, where are they selling this peace of mind? Asking for a friend.
Since you do a lot of things alone, I’m curious about the role your friends play in your life.
My friends will disagree, but I think their role in my life is to stimulate ambition. Just by interacting with them, I have a mental road map for how much drive a young person should have. I’m so introspective, so I don’t pay attention to the world — where should I be? How much should I be earning? etc. But my friends do. And by watching them lay out their lives and track it, I borrow from them. I guess I’m lucky to be surrounded by some of the most ambitious and smartest people I know because they surgically implant ambition in me.
Wahala for who no get smart and ambitious friends.
What do you think is the hardest part of being a man in Nigeria?
One thing that is true about being a man in Nigeria is that it confers some expectations on you. These expectations are upheld not by the law but by your peers. One of them is the idea that you have to be the Gestapo of the house who controls all the affairs. As soon as you make yourself an unbridled authority on discipline, you’re creeping down the corridors of cruelty and you limit the amount of love you can get from your wife and kids. Then you grow old and wonder why your children love their mother more than they do you.
By adopting unhealthy expectations on yourself followed by societal reinforcement, you unwittingly make choices that are detrimental to you. You then unthinkingly uphold them and force other men to abide by these bad principles, sometimes even going as far as classifying whatever doesn’t conform to these masculine expectations as weak.
Nigeria makes it hard to find yourself because everything around you reinforces a particular notion of masculinity. It can be difficult to tell where you end and imported notions about masculinity start. And that can be confusing sometimes.
How do you now define your masculinity?
I generally think of myself as a boyish man because I think youthfully about things. However, in terms of myself in relationship with other men, I understand my need to dominate. I want to enter a room and allow my presence to be felt. Because of this tendency, I always feel the need to be tempered by a partner who’s not meek or timid because I think I’ll unwittingly subdue her.
I also think that although masculinity is something that gets bestowed upon you arbitrarily, it can be beautiful if you know how to use it. By virtue of being a man, you have the ability to protect a lot of people. The weakest man in the world can defend people today. This is a privilege that I wish more men internalised.
Sometimes, I see some men lamenting about how being a man is becoming demonised and how people are suspicious of men, and I’m usually like, men are really powerful beings and with great power comes great responsibility. The reason men can do a lot of good is also why you can do a lot of bad. We can’t increasingly acknowledge that we’re powerful and expect to be given the benefit of the doubt when many times we haven’t lived up to expectations.
I think of my masculinity as a tool I’ve been given to use responsibly. So I try to speak up for other people when they need someone to speak for them.
I’m also learning to be vulnerable. As a younger man, I felt the need to be tough because I thought there was something reprehensible about being emotional. It wasn’t really affecting me, but people could never interact with me. By not showing all of me — strengths and weaknesses — people couldn’t know me. Being a man is me learning that I can be both vulnerable and responsible without muddying any waters. Being vulnerable doesn’t undermine my masculinity or make me less of a man.
In the spirit of being vulnerable, do you want to tell me your deepest darkest secret?
Before I go, I want to ask what you think are some things necessary to live a good life.
I think that being useful is the root of happiness — when I send money home, I feel useful. When I build apps, I feel useful. When I make something that makes my company a profit, I feel useful. Every time I’ve felt down is because I felt useless in the face of something. If you find what arrests all your sensibilities and keeps you working and striving, that thing is what will make you happy. Life is funny in that you don’t know what will make you useful until you get there, so keep pushing it.
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