To understand Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad, it’s useful to know that their Jan. 25, 2012, debut on the Toronto Star’s front page was not the result of elaborate design on their part.
The 17-year-olds from Scarborough were certainly not angling for international celebrity, though that’s what occurred when the story of their kitchen-table project — sending a weather balloon equipped with cameras and a flag-waving Lego Man to the stratosphere — subsequently ripped around the globe. They were just curious, when they first emailed us, as to whether the Star wanted to print some photos that happened to be shot from 24 kilometres above Earth. Um, yes, we did.
So it’s perfectly predictable that when contacted this month for an update on their lives, the two friends phoned each other to share their puzzlement. We haven’t done anything interesting, they protested.
This is nonsense.
Those who read that first story may remember that Muhammad’s dream was to become an aircraft technician. This spring, Muhammad, now 20, graduated from Centennial College’s aircraft maintenance engineering program. He describes it as intense but rewarding. “It’s one of those jobs where you have to really like it.”
Apparently not satisfied with nine-hour-long classes, however, Muhammad also represented his school at this year’s Ontario Technological Skills Competition, where skilled tradespeople vie to complete technical tasks. He placed third in his division. He has since landed a job at Pearson airport. His job is to clean and maintain the exterior of private jets, and also to make connections that will help him secure an apprenticeship.
Ho, back in 2012, wanted to study commerce at the University of British Columbia. He completed his first year of that program this spring, and is taking more courses this summer. Also now 20, Ho actually began school earlier but then withdrew, partly because he thought he could succeed as an entrepreneur without a university degree. That is not the case, he now realizes: “I need to learn from my peers and elders.”
Since re-enrolling, he has doubled down on west-coast university life, filling his days with everything from hiking and half-marathons to qualifying as a certified rescue diver. He climbed Russia’s Mount Elbrus and is training for higher and harder peaks.
Ho says he is trying to make up for lost months. Muhammad says that Ho is “crazy — once he makes up his mind, you can’t stop him.”
The two friends are still very much in touch. This May, when Ho came home from school, they set out to repair Ho’s broken motorcycle. Muhammad’s version of the story was that they tinkered around with it until it sort of worked. Ho clarified that Muhammad dug up an obscure manual, diagnosed an engine air-intake problem, and now the bike is good as new.
It’s easy to see why, if a certain kind of person hasn’t sent anything to space recently, that person might feel they have done nothing special, or at least nothing newsworthy.
There is another possible perspective.
When I asked each of them if they still thought about their Lego Man days, Ho said no: He doesn’t want to rest on previous accomplishments. But Muhammad said he does still think about the experience. His life is still permeated by the ethic of the Lego Man project: “Keep working. Don’t give up. A lot people give up halfway.”
Broadcasters don’t fly you to their studios to talk about successfully navigating adulthood, but it’s at least as difficult a task as sending a balloon to space. Muhammad distilled the most important lesson of Lego Man, but there are others:
You will have to try a few different things, and break a few of your mom’s sewing needles, before you get it right.
Wait patiently for the day the wind is blowing in your favour. Work as hard as you can so you are ready for it.
Don’t wait for permission to pursue your goals. Rules that don’t matter, for example that experimental parachutes shouldn’t be thrown from condo roofs, ought to be ignored.
As for the question of newsworthiness: seeing two really nice kids from Scarborough succeeding in ways big and small is a non-trivial indicator that, at least in some small corner of the universe, things are bending generally the way they should.