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.