I encountered my first culture shock when I switched schools in the 5th grade. The new school wouldn’t allow me to spend recess in the library, forcing me to actually do some of the things that I preferred to read about. So, at the tender age of 10, I was thrown to the lions, having to fend for myself on the soccer field.
It was on the pitch that I found myself as goalkeeper. And by the following year I had a new hero to look up to, one that wasn’t found in books or comics. He was Kuwait’s greatest soccer player and he was as real as my heavy breathing and the scorching sun. Like most superheroes – from Mighty Mouse to Peter Parker, he even had an alliterative name. Sameer Saeed was my “goalkeeperman”. Even his number was alliterative. Twenty-two.
It didn’t matter that he was twice my height and I was likely twice his weight, he became my role model. I followed his games religiously. I even adopted his number in everything I did. Buying a new goalkeeper shirt with the number 22 or buying new gloves defined excitement for me for years. When he retired from soccer and became an entrepreneur, opening up a chain of stores, I became curious about entrepreneurship. Years later, in a chance meeting, I was able to tell him the role he played in my life just by existing. I’m sure he got that a lot. Unfortunately, he will get it no more.
I spent the last few days with many “Sameer Saeeds” at the Young Global Leaders retreat in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The level of talent in this group was inspirational. And in typical World Economic Forum style, the side conversations, breakfast meetings and general vibes were all invaluable. Here, together in one place, were more than 260 role models, not just to children, but also to adults. All of them are role models to me. Just listening to their individual life’s journeys was like hearing the personal sagas of 260 superheroes, each with powerful lessons worthy to pass on. I felt like a kid again listening to stories about superheroes. It was like being in a talking library where the characters leapt out of the pages and into your midst.
But the day the meeting ended I was sadly awakened to the very adult reality of death. While I was talking and learning with these incredible Young Global Leaders, who are now the great role models in my life, I learned that my childhood role model had been hit by a car and killed at the age of 48. What a sad, sad day.
My role model is dead. Long live my role model.
Naif Al-Mutawa is the creator of THE 99 Superhero concept that made its debut as a comic book series in 2006. By 2010, THE 99 were in a new series published by DC Comics fighting cape to shoulder with Batman, Superman and other members of the Justice League of America. In 2012, THE 99 animated series launched on global television. Naif Al-Mutawa has been twice honoured by the World Economic Forum for his work with THE 99. In 2009, he was selected as Social Entrepreneur of the Year for the Middle East by the Schwab Foundation and in 2011 he was nominated as a Young Global Leader.