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3 ways to find happiness, according to a 22-year-old who has suffered unspeakable tragedy

Catherine Clifford

Kayvon Asemani sports an impressive resume and LinkedIn profile.

The 22-year-old just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an undergraduate business degree. He's already secured a job at Facebook as a product manager, starting in July, and even has the personal support of the social media giant's famous COO, Sheryl Sandberg.

He's also the founder and CEO of Kayvon Enterprises — a holding company for his rap music brand, clothing line, tech ventures and real estate management businesses. He's performed music at the United Nations as part of the International Young Leaders Assembly with an audience of representatives from more than 190 countries. And during college he interned at Accenture, Viacom and Hershey Entertainment and Resorts.

But Asemani's success came after he experienced heartbreaking childhood tragedy. When he was 9 years old, in July 2005, his father attempted to murder his mother, "leaving her in a vegetative state and making me an orphan to this day," he explains in a series of questions and answers published on the website Poets & Quants, which named him to its 2018 Best and Brightest list in April.

Asemani and his two siblings, an older brother and a younger sister, stayed with various family members until his first grade teacher and a family friend worked to get the three into the Milton Hershey School, a residential school for underprivileged kids. They enrolled in September 2006, Asemani tells CNBC Make It , via email.

"Most people from my high school also have very traumatic backstories, and that background has permeating effects, making it very tough for students to bounce back," Asemani tells Poets & Quants. "When I got in, it was a very big deal to everyone in my community, but I didn't want to be the exception. I didn't want to be the only one to be able to achieve this feat from my background."

Asemani went on to mentor students from his high school, he says, "so that they can learn from my mistakes and use my success as a launch-pad for them to do even better."

Facebook executive Sandberg got to know Asemani when she included his story in the book she co-wrote with Wharton professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant, "Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy." Asemani took a class taught by Grant at Wharton, he tells CNBC Make It, and the professor asked if he could connect the student with Sandberg to share his story for their book.

"She's just as great as a person as she is a professional," Asemani tells CNBC Make It. "She's one of those very special people who really is just as amazing in person as she is in the limelight."

Sandberg shared a TED talk delivered by Asemani in a Facebook post, in which she described the "unspeakable tragedy" that he had experienced as a child.

"He has succeeded in the face of long odds, and today, he's a Wharton grad, an entrepreneur, and a member of the Facebook team," Sandberg writes in the post. "He's inspiring others by sharing his story and what he's learned along the way because as Kayvon puts it in this TEDx talk, 'We've all been through something — and we're all on a constant quest for fulfillment in the face of that something.'"

"What I have learned is that life," he says in the TED talk, published on YouTube in May, "at least to me, is not about getting to a certain point, it's about being happy in that process. And I believe to be happy, you need to achieve mental clarity."

Here are Asemani's three best pieces of advice:

1. 'Relative is negative'

"I remember growing up and thinking about, 'Wow, everybody around me had their mother in their lives and I wish I had mine.' But I couldn't let that stop me from being happy, because she would have wanted me to make her proud," says Asemani.

He has learned to live by parallel logic regarding his achievements. "The moment you start comparing your accomplishments to other people's accomplishments, you will realize you haven't done a thing compared to other people. I have learned that it's not really about what other people are doing. For me, I would rather just be the best that I can be," he says.

2. 'Retire your desire'

"At a very young age I had to make a decision: Do I want to just focus on what I want for myself, or do I want to [help] create a world where other kids who come from broken homes have the opportunity to succeed just like I did?" says Asemani. "That's the path I wanted to choose."

One of the students Asemani mentored from his high school got accepted into Wharton three years after he did. And another transferred to the University of Pennsylvania for her sophomore year, Asemani tells Poets & Quants.

3. 'Take care of your mind, and everything else will take care of itself'

Asemani relies on "mental clarity" to find happiness in his life even after his tragic childhood experiences, he says.

"What mental clarity means is that regardless of the good, the bad or anything in between that happens to us — and regardless of whose fault it is — it can not impact our happiness. We just learn from it, deal with the consequences and move on. When you do that, your happiness can never be compromised."

See also:

  • Top Wharton professor Adam Grant: How you can find meaning in your work life
  • This is the No. 1 trait of great leaders, says a Wharton professor who's studied thousands of executives
  • Why Elon Musk encourages his employees to tell him exactly what he's doing wrong

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