10 important life lessons from ex-president José Mujica
In the early 70s, José Mujica is a prominent member of the notorious rebel movement Tupamaros. At that time, he was one of the most wanted ‘terrorists’ in Uruguay. After numerous bank robberies, he is eventually overpowered after a firefight. He manages to survive six bullets in his body, but what awaits him is beyond imagination.
He spends twelve years after his arrest, mainly in miserable and inhumane conditions. The many tortures seem to be a welcome addition to solitary confinement, but for many people, they would be reason enough to give up. Loneliness, hunger, and a lack of daylight drove José to madness, and he ended up in psychosis. It took eight years before he finally got to see someone and read something for the first time. This helped him to survive the remaining four years.
In 1985 Uruguay became a democracy again, and José is released thanks to the amnesty law. Twenty-five years later, he is elected as the 40th president and is not only able to put the country back on the map thanks to the remarkable turn of events in his life. José Mujica became known as the poorest President in the world. Below are the lessons that we can learn from this extraordinary man.
Table of Contents
1. Be satisfied with what you have
José Mujica, who has the nickname Pepe Mujica, has been living with his wife on a one-room farm for 30 years. During his presidency, he could have chosen to live in the presidential palace but remained true to his values. According to José, people are only really poor when they need a lot because they are never satisfied.
He gives away 90% of his presidential salary and drives an old light blue Volkswagen Beatle from 1978. But only at the weekend. Once upon a time, there was a Sheikh who made an offer of 1 million dollars for his car, but he turned it down.
2. Possession is precious because it takes time from your life
When you buy something, you don’t buy it with money, but with the hours of your life, you spend to be able to buy it. Like no other, he knows what it’s like when everything is taken away from you, up to and including the daylight. He realized that it is not your possessions but your ability to want and be able to live that makes you happy.
3. Buy and own only what you really need
José Mujica always emphasizes that he is not against consumption but against waste. He, therefore, always preaches that it is better to buy and own only what you really need. In his simple reasoning, he says:
- Provide food for those who are hungry
- Make sure there are houses for those who live on the street
- Take care of schools for those who need education
4. We will have to learn to share
According to José Mujica, not all of us can own a 400m2 house and a second house on the beach. There will not be enough space for everyone. We will have to learn to share. If everyone consumed as the Americans do now, we would need three planets like the earth. If we don’t learn to share, there are gigantic groups of people doomed, he says. According to José, modesty is not a sacrifice but a duty.
5. Never impose anything on others
Punta del Este is the Sant Tropes of Uruguay. José Mujica is annoyed that some villas are used for no more than 20 days a year, while others have no roof over their heads. Even as a president, he feels trapped by the system that makes this possible, but he realizes that he cannot impose change.
He believes in setting a good example and believes that everyone has the freedom to live as they please. He wants to live as the majority of people do. If everyone did that, the world would be a lot more habitable for many.
According to José, countries often want to impose something on other countries as well. For example, the West wants to impose its vision of democracy in other countries. By definition, this creates conflicts. We have to learn to face and accept the differences in religion and convictions.
It sometimes seems as if, because you are the strongest, you also have the right to impose your own beliefs. It would be good for everyone if the leaders of these countries changed their view of the world.
6. There is no victory around the corner
Change is a slow process. Victory is never around the corner. José Mujica believes that through freedom of expression, you can pass on ideas to current and new generations. According to him, this sometimes takes a lot of courage, but it is one of the most sustainable ways of change.
His wife Lucia Topolansky has been at his side for more than 30 years and regularly speaks the words during public performances:
“The only fight you lose is the one you run away from. Don’t use violence, but speak out!”
7. Look for the similarities with people and not the differences
José Mujica is an atheist, which is remarkable for someone who was born and raised in a Latin American country where the majority of the population is Catholic. He also legalized marijuana, abortion, and gay marriage. When asked about this meeting after a visit to the Pope, he began to say that he and the Pope had humanity as a common interest. José Mujica does not look at the differences between people but at the similarities.
8. Experiment when something doesn’t work out
Drug trafficking is a significant problem in most Latin American countries. When he legalized marijuana, he said he didn’t do this to throw everything open. He only saw that 100 years of effort against drug abuse has only led to more violence and more drug use. That means you have to experiment to do it differently. If that doesn’t work, you can change it again and try something new. Very often it’s proven that being disruptive is the best way to solve problems or innovate.
He regularly emphasizes how much he is against the abuse of drugs and any form of addiction. One of his famous statements is that the only good addiction is the addiction to love.
9. You don’t have to forgive everyone, but you do have to want to live
When asked whether he has forgiven his guards, José Mujica usually answers briefly but forcefully. He doesn’t have to forgive them, but he also doesn’t have to solve anything with them. He wants to live, and that is much more important to him.
What has been taken away from him can never be compensated. But that is also the law of life he says. You can fall or be taken down a thousand times. It’s about learning to get up again. Even after the thousandth time, you have to be prepared to make a new start and to want to live to the fullest.
10. The intention with which you do something is more important than the deed itself
How can a bank robber who is arrested after a firefight with the police become president? Even though he sometimes seems to avoid such questions, José Mujica believes that he had to rob the banks because they abused their power, and the Tupamaros needed money to change the system.
If he had done the armed bank robberies out of self-interest, he thinks it would have been a completely different story. Now there was a good intention behind it, and in this case, that was more important than the deed itself certainly because these were corrupt bankers who repressed the people and who were proven to be corrupt later on.
More about José Mujica
José Mujica was born on 20 May 1935 and is now 84 years old. He was president of Uruguay from 2010 to 2015 and was succeeded by his left-wing predecessor Tabaré Vázquez. His prison sentence was filmed in the film A Twelve-Year Night (2018). Many news channels and documentary makers have conducted interviews with José. It is striking how consistent his statements and lifestyle are. As a leader, he has not only remained modest but also lags far behind in terms of technology. In 2014, in the presence of the press, he spoke for the first time via video calling. When he sees and hears someone speaking on the screen, he couldn’t do anything other than say that it was a strange moment for him.
Pepe Mujica “world’s poorest president”.
“Poor is not he who has little, but he who always needs more.”