Robert Muggah

For the past two decades Dr. Robert Muggah has tracked gun smugglers in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, counted cadavers in Colombia and Haiti, and studied warlords from Congo to Papua New Guinea. To better understand these issues – including ways to disrupt them – Robert started experimenting with new data visualization tools. In the past few years he has worked with Google Ideas and other groups to design award-winning arms mapping globes, homicide monitoring platforms, social media dashboards to track gangs and money laundering. He has discussed these and other tools at Google, TED Global and the Web Summit in 2014.
Robert currently oversees research at the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute, a think and do tank working at the interface of security and development. 

Robert-Muggah_P3My Definition of Success | Success is the process of contributing to something greater than one’s own self. It is not a noun, but a verb. It is something to be striven for and probably never fully actualized. Owing in large part to the way I was raised, success to me was never indexed to the amount of money earned or the size of my reputation. Over the years, I´ve also learned that success is rarely (if ever) achieved by me alone. It has many mothers and fathers – we can live and act successfully because of the sacrifices and contributions others have made alongside us. While we all should strive for success, we also need to be humble in pursuing it.

I Am Driven By | What drives me is the desire for people everywhere to feel a minimum level of safety and security. This sense is a necessary precondition of living one´s life to its full potential. I was given an extraordinary opportunity by being born into a family, a neighborhood, city and a country that ensured security was a public good. For the first decade and a half of my life I took this for granted. My choices and opportunities were never mediated by insecurity. It was only later in my teenage and early adulthood years I came to realize what my experience was the exception, not the rule.

My Highlights | The highlights of my life and career are fairly easy to pinpoint. On the one hand, the arrival of my daughter – Yasmin Zoe – is clearly a high-water mark. Nothing puts one´s existence into perspective like having a child. All the clichés are true. I am more resolved than ever to fight harder to make the world a safer and healthier place for her, but also her generation. As for my career, there are a few moments that stand out, but mostly because they played a formative role in shaping my professional trajectory. They taught me how life is a winding road, and that we need to keep mindful of, and open to, forks in the road.
There are several big highlights – all important because they changed my view of the world. My first emerged when working as a kind of undercover human rights monitor (and worker-teacher) with migrant Latin American laborers in farms across southern Canada. As an adolescent, I learned first-hand about social injustice and poverty in one of the wealthiest societies on earth. The second occurred in my twenties as a researcher and practitioner in Africa, Asia and Latin America – and disrupted by understandings of the Global South. During my thirties, I helped set-up new organizations devoted to public security from Brazil to Canada and Switzerland and earned a doctorate at the University of Oxford. These experiences taught me I could start helping to affect real change.

A Key Talent | One of my strengths is optimism. This is not so much a naïve expectation that everything will turn out well, but rather an imperative to always try working toward a positive outcome. This means treating complex problem sets not as intractable obstacles, but as opportunities and puzzles to be solved. It also implies taking on constructive criticism and extracting from it the necessary insights and lessons. What also helps is seeing in people their strengths and weaknesses, but building on the former rather than exploiting the latter. Stepping back even further, when I´m confronted with setbacks (and there have been many!), I also see these as part of life´s journey.

Robert-Muggah_P2The Characteristics of Success | All people have exceptional talents and success often emerges on uncovering them. In my case, I was never an especially high-achiever academically. That said, through a process of trial and error (and supportive parental/teaching support) I began to recognize what I was good at, and what I was not. In addition to keeping positive and optimistic, some of the characteristics that I found especially important in retrospect include discipline/perseverance, confidence/risk-taking, curiosity/adventurousness, diversifying options, and pursuing what you feel passionately about rather than that which is expected. Each of these can be nurtured, but it helps to recognize what they are in order to consciously build them.

Principles I Live By | My principles and values were banged into me early and have endured over the past four decades. I believe strongly in acting both globally and locally rather than one or the other. We are all citizens of the world, as much as we are connected to our nation and neighborhoods. I´m strongly committed to investing in the public good as opposed to the private interests. We are stronger when we build goods for all, rather than carve up what we can for our own. I am a big believer in diversity, especially of opinion, and believe that a mosaic of perspectives makes us stronger. More prosaically, I´m also a devotee of evidence (as opposed to ideology) as one of the key basis for action.

Lessons I Have Learnt | There are at least three basic insights that I´ve learned over the past few years. First, stubborn commitment and perseverance can reap big rewards. Some people call this the “10,000-hour rule”. It takes time, but it´s possible to achieve great success with the right dose of discipline. Second, the successful life is one that embraces change and adaptation. Life is (or at least does not have to be) linear: sometimes the unexpected opportunity is a game-changer. Do not be afraid to take the road less traveled. Third, never measure your personal worth by money or the success of your peers. Of course, a modicum of both is worth striving for, but these are means not ends to the successful life.

Dealing with Doubt | Some measure of self-doubt and negativity are healthy emotions. They help us recognize our boundaries, but also offer a kind of baseline. Such feelings are entirely human. Frankly, without them, we are sociopaths. The challenge is not to let them dominate or inhibit our aspirations. At every stage of my life and career I have rubbed against these old bugbears. Yet it was only by lunging or plunging forward that I was able to reset the parameters of my fears and doubts. They will never, nor should they ever, be fully vanquished. They are what make us human, and through which we are able to express our essential vulnerabilities.

Robert-Muggah_P1The Meaning of Life | There is, in my opinion, no ultimate or a priori meaning of life. After all, we are infinitesimally small creatures living on a tiny planet orbiting a small star, in a modest solar system, within an average sized galaxy in an ever expanding universe. What there is, however, is meaning we can ascribe to our short lives. This is shaped by previous generations, our own families and communities, and ultimately what we ourselves bring to the table. At least one “meaning” of life is to recognize the awe-inspiring gift that is to be alive. Another is to give other people the opportunity to also witness and experience the full potential of their lives, whatever it is they ultimately decide to do with it.

The Best Advice I’ve Received | Monty Python´s Life of Brian: “Always look on the sunny-side of life”.


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Watch Robert’s TED Talk Here:

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