Health, wealth, wisdom and reputation - not built overnight

MTN group executive Herman Singh says these four attributes take time but are worth developing.

Herman Singh, group executive, innovation strategy at MTN, says that health, wealth, wisdom and reputation deliver exponential returns, even if the initial gains seem small. He reflects on how he has developed these attributes in his own life. 


We live in a digital age in which everything is changing exponentially. Possibilities and outcomes are seemingly unlimited and abundant. 

Yet our lives seem to be logarithmic or linear. They are slow to change with slower gratification or benefits reflecting scarcity. And the law of diminishing returns means that there is a tapering off as we plateau, sometimes quite early into our lives leading us to surrender to a life of mediocrity . 

The four most important things in life however are not built overnight and indeed can be exponential and cumulative. Health, Wealth, Wisdom and Reputation are four key objectives in life. They are outcomes really and not inputs at all. These are consequences of planned actions taken early where lots of effort seem to yield small initial gains. Those that persist earn massive benefits later in life.  

Contrary to this there is an almost universal desire for immediate gratification. I see people on health kicks when they are faced with their own mortality or suddenly on twitter or LinkedIn trying to build a personal brand or on a rapid path to try to accumulate wealth with a get rich quick scheme. Suddenly reading self improvement books. Do these work? Only in the statistically improbable cases. And rarely is it sustainable. It can take twenty years of hard work to become an overnight success. 

I started lecturing part time at a business school in the early 90s. It was a lot of work and involved huge sacrifices in family time for very little financial reward. But teaching was always my passion. So I persisted with a few hours a week for decades. Thirty years later I’ve taught over 60 000 professionals in 20 countries, have now published the third edition of the most used text book in its field and been appointed an Adjunct Professor at the top Business School in Africa. All this while working part time! A “hobby” that now yields massive professional and personal benefits in terms of reputation, network and wisdom. 

These outcomes are exponential. They start small and slow and rapidly accelerate at the end. Want to be younger, longer? Live healthier, younger. Want to be sustainably wealthy, older? Start saving early. Want to have a great reputation and personal brand in life? Start practicing integrity, professionalism and network building as soon as you can. 

The key is starting early. It’s like compound interest in wealth. The halo effect means that you are seen positively when you already have a positive reputation. It took me five years to get from 0 to 2,000 followers on LinkedIn. It took just another three years to get to 15,000. Why? It’s the network effect. The community gets more valuable the larger it gets. It’s why Facebook and LinkedIn have multi-billion-dollar valuations. But this network effect works for you personally too. 

It’s the same with health. Living hard when young seems to be the norm now. Binge drinking, all night partying, getting lots of tattoos or experimenting with exotic narcotics all seem like fun. The damage to your health only becomes apparent over time and is often irreversible . 

Similarly eating well and exercising regularly with good weight control when younger creates massive health benefits when older. I’m approaching 60 years old and I’ve cycled over 200 kilometres in a single day four times in the last few years. People often comment that they cannot believe my age, that I look 10 to 15 years younger. Flattering yes but more importantly it’s my dividend from decades of healthy investment earlier and an annual medical for over 25 years.  

Build on small successes. It might not be as exciting early on, but it’s sustainable. And it’s truly exponential and cumulative over time. 

Remember, the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.The second best time is today. It’s never too late to start.