Happy to live in post-apartheid South Africa

Every now and then, I have an experience that makes me profoundly grateful that apartheid is over and that I am alive to see the effects of South Africa’s transformation. I had such an experience this morning.

What did I do this morning? I went to work, just like every other day of the week/month/year. Nothing unusual about that. I parked my car and walked towards the coffee shop near my office to get a chocolate croissant and an Appletiser (probably not the healthiest breakfast, but it works for me).

As I approached the coffee shop, I saw someone walk out of it. I recognised him – a friend from school who works close by. I called to him, he stopped and waited for me and we had a little chat – mostly about his baby boy who just had his first birthday.

The chat ended and I went on to work.

And then, a bit later, it hit me. That conversation could not have happened in apartheid South Africa. Here’s why:

My friend is a coloured man. He’s married to a white woman. Their son is a black baby boy whom they adopted.

During apartheid, their family would have been illegal. The Mixed Marriages Act would have prevented them from getting legally married. Even if they had lived together in secret, they would not have been able to legally adopt a black baby.

I would probably not have ever met my friend, because I am a white man and we would not have been able to attend the same school under the apartheid regime.

We’re not close friends. Our interaction consists of occasional chance encounters like happened this morning. Otherwise we’re Facebook friends so I see his status updates and photos (which is how I knew about his son’s birthday).

What I see of his life on Facebook shows me that he has a close-knit, loving family. Mom, Dad and baby boy all seem pretty happy with each other’s company. In that regard, I’m very pleased for them.

Thirty years ago, their family could not have been. I can only marvel at the evil of legalised discrimination when I think about that. And while apartheid is over, discrimination is certainly not.

So many discriminatory laws exist in so many countries around the world – laws against people of different genders, skin colours, races, religions, sexual orientations, languages, family backgrounds, political affiliations, and so on. My little list here is probably tiny compared to the reality of worldwide legalised discrimination.

And this is why I’m so pleased to live in post-apartheid South Africa. South Africans got together and decided that enough was enough and that the discrimination of apartheid had to end.

The conversation I had with my friend this morning was made possible by the actions of people I’ve never met that took place over twenty years ago. My personal happiness has been affected today by the end of apartheid in the early 1990s.

I’m so grateful that apartheid is over. And I hope that other forms of discrimination both here in South Africa and around the world can be ended so that more families like my friend’s can be and more people can have experiences like the one I had today.

Mood Matters

I used to think that my mood made no material difference to my ability to successfully perform tasks, particularly tasks that I’m used to. But over time that’s proving not to be the case. My mood matters. A lot.

I work in a fairly stressful job. There are multiple deadlines during each day and they all have to be met. So I don’t have a lot of time to slow down and think about how I’m approaching my day. I simply have to get on with it.

The trouble with that is not the stress itself. It’s the lack of space to deal with my mood. If I arrive at work frustrated and stressed out for some reason completely unrelated to work, that frame of mind stays with me and affects how I experience my work day.

What has woken me up to this reality is dissatisfaction in my work. On some days, I really don’t like my job. And that’s been slightly mystifying because on other days I relish my work. Looking at those days on which I’d rather be somewhere else, I can see that I’ve taken stress and frustration to work with me, rather than the work itself being the problem.

Of course, there’s a positive side to this too – if I arrive at work calm, collected and focused on being productive, I generally have a fantastic day.

This is something that’s taken me a bit by surprise. And looking at it now, it seems a little ridiculous that it’s taken me 30 years to work out that I need to prepare myself mentally for any task in order to perform it well. But that’s just how it is.

Of course, this new realisation is also a call to action. I need to spend my morning in such a way that I arrive at work in a positive frame of mind. That means I need to have enough time for my morning routine, so that I don’t have to rush.

It also means that I must wake up refreshed, which requires that my sleep be of sufficient length and quality. And for that to happen, I need to go to bed early and, perhaps more importantly, without being stressed out.

This post is now going in a direction that has been covered before – I need to take care of myself. And that’s not what I was thinking when I started to write today. But it’s the inevitable conclusion. If I want to live a positive and productive life, I must first be good to myself.

This new appreciation of the importance of mood also highlights something I chatted about with a good friend over a glass of wine yesterday evening: It’s crucial to face personal issues, even if it’s uncomfortable.  That’s how we learn and grow.

If I constantly push my own issues aside, they don’t go away. Instead, they stress me out and wreck my mood. If I deal with my problems, they go away. And the lightness that results from solving my own personal problems is truly wonderful. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that.

So I suppose the conclusion I’m drawing from this meandering post is this: I need to care about myself enough to face the issues that are holding me back. I’ll be trying to keep that in mind as I go through today; then tomorrow; and hopefully every day after that.


Quit trying to do everything yourself

I’m guessing you have a long list of things to do at home that you never get round to. My wife and I certainly do. We finally worked out that we don’t have to do it all ourselves. We also worked out how to get it all done in pretty quick time.

How? We hired a PA (Personal Assistant). Just for a week. Just to take care of some stuff that we needed done.

But let’s go back to the beginning. Last Sunday, the wife and I were staring at each other across the coffee table, contemplating the bleakness of our to-do list (Quite a lot of that list really needed to happen by the middle of the week).

And we wondered aloud “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just pay someone else to do it all?”

A few seconds later, we clicked. “We CAN just pay someone else to do it all!”

So we Googled this idea, hoping to find some sort of agency or business that did exactly what we wanted. No luck. Then we started looking at Gumtree ads, where we found one promising candidate, who we emailed (without ever getting a response).

Not long after sending that email, we thought “What we really need is a student-type person who’s on holiday and therefore has the time.” We also thought it would help if we actually knew this person who would end up with access to our house and cars while we were not at home.

A quick phone-call to one of my sisters later, we had our target. An unemployed (funemployed in her terms) friend of my youngest sister who had just finished studying and was waiting to go overseas.

We called her up, met with her later in the afternoon and she agreed to work for us. In return, we promised her pay, petrol money, airtime and five lunches.

The result has been, in a word, magnificent.

In the space of a week our awesome PA has engaged the services of movers, an electrician, a handyman and a cleaner. The enormous pile of everything that has been sitting in our garage waiting to be sorted has been neatly divided into appropriately labeled sections.

We’ve acquired a ladder (we needed one), had a wardrobe and various other items sold and had some clothes dry-cleaned. Next week, my wife’s car is getting fixed and a handyman is coming to sort out some more issues that we’ve identified.

What we’ve learned from this experience

1. We don’t have the time to clear our to-do list. In fact, if we had to do everything that’s been done this week it would take weeks or even months to accomplish.

2. We can afford it. Many people I know would prefer to leave things undone or do them badly rather than pay someone else to do it, simply because of the perception that there’s no money available. That’s not true. Budget is just a factor. If money were tight, we would have made it a day or two instead of a full week.

3. Getting things done is satisfying. And that applies even if we’re getting them done by proxy. I’m very pleased by what’s been accomplished this week.

4. An organised life is more pleasant. Just walking into our garage is more pleasant than it was a few days ago. Where before there was a mess to be dealt with, now there are specific actions to be taken with specific things: A particular pile of books needs to be sold, tossed or shelved. Some items we need but don’t use often must be put into the ceiling. And so on.

5. We don’t need to make all of the decisions. We needed a ladder, but we didn’t choose it. It was chosen for us, and that’s just fine with me. We didn’t have to choose our electrician, handyman, movers or cleaner. And everything worked out just fine.

6. We don’t need to control all of our spending. Most of the tasks our PA dealt with this week involved money. We didn’t want to have to approve everything, so we gave her complete freedom to approve anything up to R500. We could have made it higher, and probably will next time. Because of that freedom, we only had to approve expenses on 2 or 3 occasions. The rest of the time, things just happened and we found out when we got the invoices for payment.

7. When we have time, we’re more productive. My wife and I both work full-time. We normally get home tired and a bit stressed, and then try to deal with our world in that compromised state. Now we don’t have to do that. So we end up happier and more relaxed when we go to work. In my case, the benefits have been noticeable.

In conclusion

Stop stressing about your personal to-do list. Really. Just stop. It’s not helping you or anyone else to be stressed about problems you don’t have the time to solve.

Just hire someone. Make it someone you trust and someone you expect to actually do the things you want done. And then forget about it.

And stop worrying about the money. Money is just a tool. Spend it to make your life better.

Dealing with Consequence

Consequence is an inescapable part of reality. We make decisions and take actions, and consequences result. Sometimes our decisions and actions are negative, i.e. we choose not to decide or act, but there are consequences nonetheless. I’ve observed three distinct ways in which the people I know deal with consequence. Let’s have a look at them.

1. Fear of Losing Out

This is the fear of negative consequence. It is the source of a need for security. This fear is paralysing, as it prevents the subject from doing anything unfamiliar in case it turns out badly.

Staying in an unsatisfying job can be an example of this. I’ve been there – I stayed in a previous job for too long. There was nothing wrong with the job itself, I just needed to move on for my sake. But I was afraid to push myself out of my comfort zone, afraid to make an incorrect decision.

When I eventually did take the step of leaving my job to pursue a freelance career, it turned out to be a life-changing, universe-expanding decision. I had delayed that decision simply because I was afraid.

This fear also manifests in me as a fear of disappointing other people. I want the people close to me to approve of my choices, to the unhealthy extent that I sometimes act against my wishes or better judgement simply to preserve that approval.

2. Fear of Missing Out

This fear leads to reckless and unmeasured behaviour. It results in the pursuit of any and all opportunities simply because they exist.

The fear of missing out is also the source of herd mentality: “Everyone else is doing it… I don’t want to feel left out, so I’ll join in.”

In me, the fear of missing out manifests in the form of aversion to opportunity risk. I struggle to commit to some things because I fear that if I do, I will miss out on the consequences of committing to some unspecified “other decision or action”.

3. Embracing Consequence

There are a few people I know and admire who seem able to consider the consequences, both positive and negative, of their actions and proceed, accepting the possibility that those consequences could come to pass.

This is the method of dealing with consequence that I desire for myself. In some parts of my life, I believe it exists, and that is certainly to the benefit of myself and the people around me.

An example

I like to use sport in examples, because sport is governed by well-defined rules that lead to one of a limited number of specific outcomes. So I’ll use a racing example here.

Motor racing is one of my hobbies. I like to go racing. The reasons are not particularly important here, but my attitude to the consequences of racing is very important.

Racing can have positive consequences – exhilaration, enjoyment, success, etc. (I’ve experienced each of these to a degree) – and negative consequences – it’s dangerous (there are other possible negative consequences, but this one is sufficient for the example).

Using the above attitudes to dealing with consequence, I could behave in one of three ways:

1. I’m aware that a crash on the race-track could lead to serious injury or death for me, my competitors and/or the spectators and marshalls involved. The Fear of Losing Out dictates that I should therefore not be involved in racing.

2. Racing is enormously enjoyable. I love to win, I enjoy the adulation of other people when I succeed, and I crave the exhilaration of pushing a machine to its limits. The Fear of Missing Out dictates that I should go racing regardless of the risks.

3. Racing has risks, as described above but it also has rewards. I would like to have the rewards, but I would also like to minimise the risks – I’d like to live to hold the trophy at the end of the race. If I embrace the consequences of racing, I must ensure that I do what I can to mitigate the risks (i.e. use appropriate safety equipment, respect accepted track ettiquette, ensure that my kart is well maintained, etc.) while also doing what I can to win (practice, study racing technique, watch and learn from the drivers who are faster than I am, etc.)

Of those three possible behaviours, it’s clear that the third one is ideal. No-one wants to make decisions from a position of fear, and yet we do that so very often. I know I certainly do.

Note that it’s not necessary to agree with my approach to the question of racing – not everyone enjoys it and I know plenty of people who have no interest in it. In my case, the embrace of consequence would lead me to race, but it might well lead someone else to choose not to race.

In all areas of my life I would like to make decisions in the knowledge that I have examined the potential consequences, both positive and negative, as far as is reasonably possible. I wish for my decisions to be made without fear, but instead embracing the potential for positive or negative results.

Taking care of myself

Of all my flaws, perhaps the most significant is this: I’m useless when it comes to taking care of myself. That needs to change.

As examples: I don’t eat well; I don’t get enough exercise; I don’t sleep enough; and I don’t spend enough quality time by myself. That’s not an exhaustive list, but it illustrates the point.

The result of my lack of self-care is a poor quality of life. I generally don’t have a lot of energy; I lack enthusiasm for my daily tasks; I don’t focus as well as I would like to. Worst of all, I get stuck in my comfort zone of living badly and typically lack the motivation to get out of it.

Well, that all has to stop. My life is short and precious and I intend to live it positively.

However, I know myself quite well. If I try to suddenly and significantly change my lifestyle, it’s quite likely that I’ll do things differently for a short while and then go back to my current habits.

So my strategy is this: I shall become awesome one step at a time.

The first step is sleep. Last night I was in bed before 9 and asleep before 10. This morning I felt a little more rested than I usually do, but not much. For now, I’ll carry on going to bed early and waking up early. From previous experience of getting better quality sleep, I’m confident that I’ll see significant benefits in as short a time as a few days. That’s step 1 in the process of self-improvement.

Step 2 will involve exercise. I’m not going to beat myself up about it until I’ve settled into the new sleep pattern, but I intend to use the extra time I will have in the mornings (from waking up early) to exercise. I know from experience that when I’m fit I have more energy, focus and positivity.

Step 3 will include a bit of re-training myself to eat well. I eat a lot of fast food, a lot of processed food, a lot of carbs, a lot of sugary foods. It’s got to the point where I wonder if I have a mild addiction to carbs and sugar. So I intend to break that habit by eating well. In my experience, my eating preferences are generally dictated by my eating habits, not the other way round. So I’ll teach myself to enjoy healthy food by eating it.

There will be further steps. But for now, these three will do. Step one – sleep – will get my attention until it becomes my normal, and then I’ll focus on step 2, then step 3, and then we’ll see what else I want to change.

I look forward with (slightly bleary and fuzzy) enthusiasm to living an improved lifestyle.

No-one is “just good” at anything

Talent is one of those confusing concepts that I don’t really like. Calling someone “talented” in reference to the presence of a particular skill misses the point. Anyone who does anything well does so as the result of a great deal of practice, not because they are naturally gifted.

Thinking about myself, this becomes quite evident. Taking just two of my skills – I play the piano reasonably well and I’m quite quick around an indoor kart track – as examples, it’s clear to me that both are the result of hard work much more than any “natural ability”.

I started learning to play the piano when I was seven years old. I practised most days from then until I completed my ABRSM Grade 8 exam when I was 17. Since then, I have practised less, but still continued to play regularly – in a church band, with singers and instrumental soloists – and I have performed at a few small house concerts.

My proficiency on the piano is not down to talent. It’s down to the fact that I now have over 20 years of playing the piano behind me. I’m not sure if I’ve made it to Malcolm Gladwell’s magic number of 10,000 hours, but I’ve certainly spent a lot of time at the piano.

When it comes to indoor karting, I have for a long time considered myself to be “naturally fast”. Thinking about that recently, it’s become clear that I’ve been deluding myself. I’m not naturally fast. My early attempts at karting were pretty poor, which would not have been the case if I were somehow “just good” at karting.

I’m quick around a kart track because I’ve done literally thousands of laps. Although I only really started racing about 5 years ago, I made a point of getting in regular practice until I was quick enough to be competitive. Now it seems fairly straightforward to me to get into a kart and take it pretty close to the limit on a track.

Looking at any of my other skills (I’ve thought about this quite a bit recently) leads me to the same conclusion in each and every case. Any skill I have is down to practice.

Looking at other people around me, the same appears to be true. I’ve never met anyone who is just spectacularly good at anything at the first attempt.

The authors I know have become competent through years and years of writing. The musicians I know play well because of years and years of practice. The racing drivers I know who are quicker than I am have had more practice than I have had. The entrepreneurs I know who are successful have spent years of their lives trying to run businesses and have learned hard lessons along the way.

No-one is “just good” at anything. Of that I’m becoming more and more convinced. And the lesson is a great one for me – it tells me to stop looking for those things I’m naturally good at, and to work hard at the things I want to do well instead.