How It Started

Following My Calling

A decidedly unusual childhood

The day I was born, it snowed in Johannesburg – a city better known for dust. The unusual weather marked the beginning of a decidedly unusual childhood. I grew up in a residential hotel, managed and run by my parents, located in the ‘poor white’ suburb of Langlaagte. In keeping with the laws of 1970s South Africa, the hotel had a space for every conceivable class and defined race. If you were white, could pay your way and needed a place to rest, you could rent a room at The Fountains. If you were Indian or Coloured (and male), you could drink in the ‘Indian Bar’, whose entrance was found on the side of the hotel, away from the white bars and lounges. Unfortunately, if you were black, you could only buy your liquor from the ‘non-white’ side of the bottle store. If you were then desperate to get drunk, you could hide behind the big fridge while furtively downing your drink. I think many people have forgotten (or don’t know) how crazy and cruel apartheid was.

You can’t read?

As I describe in Lesson 16 (Be Kind) of Twenty-two Lessons for Now, the hotel had a large backyard where the workers could relax, away from the pressures of their taskmasters in the front. I loved the yard and would spend my afternoons doing my homework there. One afternoon, I noticed Moses staring at me. Moses was known as a ‘scullery boy’. This meant that he washed the endless glasses that came from the bar. Moses was a quiet man, one of the younger of the ‘boys’. I imagine that at the time, Moses must have been in his early 20s. I started to notice how he often watched me as I did my homework. That day, Moses sat closer to me and seemed to be more interested in my books than usual. I asked him if he wanted to see my reader. He smiled at me.

“I want to be a waiter,” he said suddenly.

“So ask my dad,” I replied.

He looked down at the floor.

“I can’t read,” he said.

“What do you mean, you can’t read?” I asked.

I will teach you

I was eight years old and motoring my way through Enid Blyton books faster than my mother could buy them for me. I had never even considered the possibility of an adult not being able to read.

“I left school when I was a small boy,” Moses explained. “My parents did not have money, and I had to work on my father’s farm.”

I didn’t say anything. I looked around the yard at David, the waiter, Monica, my nanny, and the myriad other servants as they went about their duties. Was it possible that they, too, could not read? How can you live without being able to read? Suddenly, I looked down at my pencil, and it hit me that if they couldn’t read, maybe they could not write either!

I held out my pencil to Moses. “I will teach you,” I said, “I will teach you to read and write.”

 Playing school

And so, every day after school, I would take my books into the backyard and, having completed my homework, Moses and I would sit together as I taught this twenty-something-year-old Zulu man to read and write in English. Slowly, slowly, day by day, starting with what I had been taught in Grade 1, I showed Moses how to sound out the letters, how to put them together and then how to say them. I was playing school with a real person, and I loved every minute of it!

Moses and I became quite a sight as we sat on beer crates, and he slowly, painstakingly, began to read. Moses was bright, and I was determined (or maybe, it was the other way round). Either way, it took us a year. When I finished Grade 3, Moses had sufficient ability in English to ask my dad if he could be a waiter.

Not long after, Moses became a waiter. And I had become a teacher. For one glorious moment, in 1976, the world was a happy place.

Two ‘pre-lessons’

I offer the story of Moses by way of introduction because, without knowing it consciously at the time, I learned two lessons from Moses that actually underpin the other 22 lessons. The first lesson, almost a truism, is:

Success is really up to you!

This lesson is best expressed by Maria Robinson:

Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.

Moses had almost zero chance of becoming a waiter when I first started teaching him. But he grabbed the opportunity of a willing child eager to help him with both hands. He did not stay a waiter for very long. Moses moved on to bigger and better things, eventually landing an office job and even getting a driver’s licence. I remember his pride, years later, when he arrived at the hotel in his company car. Moses taught me that, while how it starts is not up to us, what we make of our life is a result of our own conscious choices and actions.

This brings me to the second lesson, best expressed by a sentence I coined that I now use at the beginning of all my training sessions:

Change is a verb!

So many of us are waiting for change, hoping that it will walk through the door one day. It doesn’t. In one of my favourite cartoons, a man stands in front of an audience and asks: “Who wants change?” Everyone puts up their hands. In the next strip, he asks a different question. No hand goes up. The question he asks is: “Who wants to change?”

The bottom line is this: If you want change, you have to start thinking differently and doing things differently. If something is not working for you, the only way for it to be different is to take charge of the change you want to bring about. As you will see in this book, our thoughts are incredibly important, but, ultimately, the universe supports action. Without a conscious effort to be different and to do things differently, nothing will change.

Twenty-two Lessons for Now

The lessons contained in Twenty-two Lessons for Now are offered as handrails to guide you on the process. Let Moses be your inspiration. Against all odds, he succeeded by taking charge of his life. In a twist of fate, how it ended for Moses was not up to him either. He died in 1985, the year I finished school. While visiting his family in KwaZulu-Natal, he was killed in a turf war between the ANC and the IFP. Another sad casualty of apartheid.

How Moses chose to spend the years in between was completely a function of his own actions. I trust yours will be too.

To continue reading, buy Twenty-two Lessons for Now.