Wilbur Smith says life begins at 30.

January 28, 2011

I recently went to a friend’s birthday house party and I had a fun and stimulating chat with a British guy called Nick.  We spoke about South Africa and I was impressed with his knowledge of complex issues that few foreigners grasp such as affirmative action, BEE, apartheid, Mbeki and Zuma.

I asked him, ‘With that British accent of yours, you’re obviously not South African.  Why is it that you know more about Africa than most of us Africans?’

‘It’s all because of Wilbur Smith,’ he answered.  ‘He sparked my interest in Africa and I’ve kept my eye on the place ever since.’

I thought, ‘Who the heck is Wilbur Smith?’

Then I clicked.  I remembered seeing Wilbur Smith’s thick, dust covered books in communal lounges at holiday resorts we visited when I was growing up.  His books looked intense and dry and I thought the stories were for boys.  When I was younger, I was put off a book if it was too thick and I thought Wilbur Smith’s would be more useful as a door stopper than a riveting holiday read.

If super bright Nick thought this author was his inspiration, then he was worth investigating.  When I got home, I googled Wilbur Smith and discovered a treasure chest of information.  Every link led me deeper and deeper into this internet warren of insight and wisdom on Africa, writing and life.  Wilbur Smith is my new hero and I am now seeking out his entire repertoire and soaking up his every utterance.

He is 77 years old and has written over 32 books that have been read by over 120 million people.   Here is the piece of information that inspired me most – Wilbur Smith was a Chartered Accountant, just like me.  He hated it, just like me.  His first book was technically funded by Her Majesty the Queen because when he worked for Inland Revenue, he hid in his office and pretended to work (just like me) but actually he was beavering away at his first novel (just like me although I write blog posts, not novels).

I came across one article where Smith explains some of the lessons he has learned over his life.   I’ve read this article over and over and his words are so refreshing and reassuring and I feel as if he is patting me on the head, saying everything will be ok in the end.

He says we shouldn’t worry if we don’t know what to do with our lives. He ‘wandered around like a lost soul for 10 years before getting [himself] back on track.’ He also believes most people don’t really know themselves until they’re 30.  What a relief!  I’ve always thought that by 30 we should be clear about our mission and purpose in life.  I don’t and, as you know, this has caused me some distress.

Here’s some of Wilbur Smith’s life lessons and I think they apply to everyone in all lines of work.  I only included the good bits but, if you want, you can read the full version from this link.  Enjoy!

Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do.

People don’t really know themselves until they’re 30. Like most people nowadays, I went to university, got a degree and wandered for a bit. I trained to be a chartered accountant, which I didn’t much enjoy, and it was only slowly that the idea of becoming a creative writer gelled. When it did, I made my choice, stuck with it and applied myself 100 per cent to the job in hand.

Be disciplined – it’s the greatest asset.

My old father was a tough rancher who never went to university, but was still a very shrewd man and got all his learning in the school of hard knocks. He used to say to me, ‘My boy, 90 per cent of people in the world are good starters and bad finishers.’

Believe in yourself.

The first novel I wrote was a monster – clocking in at 180,000 words – but it died a death, a death it deserved. It was called The Gods First Make Mad. It was a good title, but it was the only good thing about the book. I didn’t let that put me off.

Don’t worry if you get kicked in the teeth – it can often be the best thing that happens to you.

Yes, the failure of my first novel was intensely disappointing at the time. But that very failure concentrated my mind, and made me even more determined to get it right the next time. Failure makes success so much sweeter, and allows you to thumb your nose at the crowds.

Trust your own judgment.

My latest – yet to be published – novel is called Those In Peril. It’s a brick of a book, and when I delivered it my editors said, ‘Gee, you can get two novels out of this!’ I replied, ‘To hell you can! It was written as one novel, and that’s the way it’s going to be published.’ They soon fell in line.

If someone puts you down, let the fire in your belly spur you on.

I remember going to a cocktail party after my first novel had been published, and a lady asking, ‘What do you do?’ I replied, ‘I’m an author.’ She scoffed, ‘One novel doesn’t make an author.’ That was equivalent to throwing down a gauntlet – and when I saw her again years later, having written a string of bestsellers, I couldn’t resist asking, ‘Do I qualify as an author now?’

Don’t rest on your laurels.

In my line of work, you can never just knock off a book and expect it to be a success. Readers aren’t stupid – they can spot a writer who’s just going through the motions, and you’ll see your sales drop off. I put my soul into every book I write.

Money is important and anyone who tells you otherwise is talking total rubbish.

However, once you’ve achieved enough money to enjoy a reasonable quality of life, money cannot be the only motivation. I still get enormous pleasure and a sense of fulfillment out of writing a book that I’m proud of. I see myself as a bit like a jewel-maker who can sit back and admire his work.

Get an education – it’s essential in conditioning your mind.

The mathematics I did at school helps me keep an eye on my finances, but no one’s education should stop when they leave school or college.

Stay in shape.

By the time you get to my age, the body is a bit like an old Ford Model T, and has to be cranked up every morning. So I stay active. The first thing I do every morning is lie on the floor for an hour, stretch and do press-ups and sit-ups. Every other day I go to the gym. A healthy body aids a healthy mind.

Have someone to share your success with.

Otherwise it’s very, very lonely, and loneliness is a killer. If you wake up in the morning and have no one to talk to or joke with, life’s not much fun, regardless of how much money you’ve got. I’ve had two wonderful women in my life: my late wife Danielle, and Mokhiniso, who mended my broken heart. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.


Is the grass greenest in North America?

January 17, 2011

I was in Canada for two weeks over Christmas and New Year.  Visits to North America feed my soul (literally and figuratively) and now I feel relaxed and ready to take on 2011.

Ever since my first trip in 2003, I’ve been in love with North America.  Everything about both Canada and the USA is bigger than everywhere else – the houses, the cars, the shops, the food, the people, the dreams and the personalities.  I always thought this was a good thing but this holiday, I realised that bigger is not always better.

Food, glorious food

Something uncontrollable happens to me when I go to North America.  I eat and eat and eat.  Usually, I have iron self-control and eat in rigid moderation but when I set foot in Canada or America, I devour everything in sight, like a human Pac Man.

In 2003, when I returned from a 2 month stay in Texas, I visited my mom in Durban and our Zulu maid Ethel said, ‘Haw! Hawbo!  Julie!’  She filled her cheeks with air and puffed them out like a chipmunk.  It hurt but it was true.  I was fatter than I had ever been.  During the last week of my trip, I couldn’t do up the zip of my trousers and had to wear long shirts to cover my enlarged belly and open fly.

I love browsing grocery stores in foreign countries.  Sometimes I buy obscure things for educational purposes.  During my inspections this holiday, I discovered processed cheese spray, chocolate milk in gallon size bottles and tins of sweet potatoes soaked in syrup.  The North Americans sweeten everything and they are particularly fascinated by all things strawberry –strawberry croissants, strawberry bagels, strawberry cream cheese.  Of course, I had to try some of these too.

The variety, quality and quantity of food in North America make eating such fun.  Loblaws Superstore in Toronto had the fattest, shiniest apples I have ever seen.  I bought two.  And I don’t even like apples.

One evening Alastair and I made dinner for the family.  I skipped around the store, waving my basket from side to side as I searched for ingredients.  The packaging in some aisles, like the cereal or sauces one, is so intense and colourful that it is like looking into a kaleidoscope.  The endless options are also paralysing and it is impossible to make quick decisions.  I found it complicated selecting a block of cheddar cheese.  I ended up with one poxy variety called ‘Marble Cheddar’ which was white with blotches of yellow cheese inside it.

Alastair’s mom has a bottle of Heinz ketchup that was so large it would be only sold for commercial purposes in the UK.  People expect things to be oversized and a meal is only value for money if you are full enough to explode.  After one such meal, Al’s mother said that if she eats any more, food would start spilling out her ears.  My body couldn’t keep up.  My inputs exceeded my outputs and I spent most of the holiday feeling as if I were incubating an immense food-baby.

After two weeks, my body was tired of the instant gratification sugar coma and craved a dry Ryvita and a banana.

Want more, waste more

It bothers me that North Americans generally treat the environment in the same way they treat their bodies.  They are oblivious to the future consequences of their current actions.

Here’s an example.  North American public toilet bowls contain at least 4 times the water of toilets in the UK or South Africa.  It feels as if you are piddling over a pond.  On many occasions this trip, I flushed and stood at the seat with my hands on my hips, watching as at least 4 litres of clean water gushed into the bowl.  It’s a waste and it makes me cross.

I read a lot of American media on the internet and I always thought the Americans were paranoid about the environment.  When BP belched a carpet of black gunk into the Gulf of Mexico, the public was spitting mad (rightly so) and I thought it was because in one swoop, BP had botched up all their individual effort.  But, when you visit America, it is difficult to see what widespread and practical measures they actually take to protect the environment.

North Americans waste food too.  When I order a baguette with cold meats, I never expect an entire pack of ham on it.  Nor does a Cobb Salad need a whole head of lettuce.  It depresses me when I see the food that gets chucked into bins, especially because I come from a place like South Africa where people have so little and it is easy to distribute uneaten food.

I want.  I want.  I want

In North America, shopping is a national sport.  I hate clothes shopping but this holiday I did it with reckless abandon.   People shop, not necessarily because they need something, but because it’s fun.  North America takes the shopping experience to a higher, giddier plane.

The customer service is the best in the world.  It’s refreshing because in the UK I’m so used to service from morose Eastern Europeans.  North American consumerism pivots around convenience – they’re obsessed with it.  I wonder what they are creating all this extra time for?  Advertising, prices and the array of products in North America are so provocative that it creates an infinite and unquenchable desire for more.  The more there is, the more people seem to crave.  No one knows when enough is enough.

I was in South East Asia in May 2010 and the people there live a basic, nonmaterial existence but seem more fulfilled than the average American.  They’re less rushed, less depressed, less irritable and less hysterical.

Maybe the SE Asians are so content because they are the engine in the American economic machine.  They make the things the Americans buy.  After our spree at the outlet malls, I inspected the labels on the pyramid of clothes we bought on sale.  They were made in Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru and Kenya.  Not even one item of clothing in our pile was made in the USA!

Where is the grass greenest?

I’ve been reading books on Swiss life in preparation for our move in March.  Switzerland is one of the most highly productive and stable countries in the world.  They’re all about self-control and moderation.  They’re obsessed with recycling and caring for the environment.  It’s also uncultured to flaunt money.  Apparently Mercedes introduced some cars into the Swiss market and removed the badges that show which model is which.

Ok fine, I admit it.  No place is perfect.  The grass is not always greener on the other side.  The grass is greenest wherever you water it.

DO more or BE more?

January 7, 2011

An African parable:

Every morning in Africa, a Gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.

Every morning a Lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the Gazelle or it will starve to death.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle. When the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

Many people don’t stand still long enough to figure out whether they are a Lion or a Gazelle.  They wake up every morning and just start running.  I used to be one of those people.

I follow management guru and Oprah’s darling Marcus Buckingham on Twitter and he wrote a questionable status saying, ‘You don’t stand out by who you are but by what you do.’  I’m weary of the obsession society has with doing for the sake of doing and running for the sake of running.

The world doesn’t care who you are – whether you’re a lion or a gazelle – but esteems those who are always running and doing.  Make sure your motor is on but it’s less bothered about the rudder.  It is a poor indictment on modern society if Buckingham is right and people stand out by what they do and not who they are as well.

When I meet someone new, we always use the conversation icebreaker, ‘What do you do?’  When I was a chartered accountant, I didn’t mind this question.  The person would invariably respond with an ‘oooo’ or an ‘aaah’ and I felt like a proud peacock.  As the years went by, I realized that who I am was diverging further and further away from what I did for a living.  I often wanted to say to people, ‘I don’t want to stand out for what I do anymore.  Don’t ask me what I do, ask me who I am.’

Unemployment is scary.  It’s more than scary; I’d never experienced such teeth-grinding, soul-corroding anxiety to find a job and find one quickly. We live in a you-are-what-you-contribute culture and, to keep my CV appealing, I knew I had to keep moving, keep doing, keep running.  Recruiters work in a rigid production line, hammering you into a round hole regardless of what shaped peg you are.  Their job is not to bother whether you’re a lion or a gazelle.  I only stood out if they liked how I had run before and whether I was running now.  They didn’t care about what I was running towards.

People told me,’ who cares what job you get, just get any old job’.  Just run.  Just do.  I sifted through endless dull specs and became more and more nauseated.  I thought we were supposed to have life and life in all its fullness and doing finance at a FTSE company may make me stand out but I knew it wouldn’t fill my cup.

Don’t just do for the sake of doing

I think it was the tycoon Rockefeller who said, ‘I wish someone had told me that when I got to the top, there would be nothing there.’

I tried to climb up the corporate finance ladder and admire the views from above.  I didn’t get to the top like Rockefeller but when I got about a sixth of the way up, I looked at the butts of my superiors above me and thought, ‘This life is for the birds.’  I wonder if Rockefeller and I experienced this, not because there is nothing for us at the top, but because our ladders were leaning against the wrong walls.

There is little point in running and doing a la Buckingham if you are not doing the right thing in the first place.

Do on the outside what resonates with you on the inside

Achievement has been my alcohol and I was an addict.  I’ve learned that you can run and do as much as you want, but if you are not comfortable with who you are and if your doing is not congruent with your being, you won’t sustain the high of success or the high of standing out.

I’ve realized that the work that the most enduringly successful people do on the outside resonates with them on the inside.  Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, once said, ‘The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.  And the only way to do great work, is to love what you do.’  If you find your talent and your passion and use them to improve both yourself and the world, then you probably will stand out anyway.

Doing is not as important as being

If you focus on being instead of on doing, you probably won’t care whether you stand out or not.  In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees stood out for their doing but were reprimanded by Jesus for neglecting their being.  He saw the motive not the method.  You’re taking your character to heaven, not your career.

We’re born into relationships, we live in relationship with others and when we die the effects of our relationships live in the hearts and minds of those still living.  You may stand out in the world by what you do but if you want to stand out in the hearts and mind of people, your character, who you are, matters most.

And you were given this swiftness, not for haste

Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,

But in the rush of everything to waste,

That you may have the power of standing still.

(An excerpt from The Master Speed by Robert Frost)