|Adapting to the world by following the rules is the worst thing that anyone can do.|
In the poem, One Finite Life, I write: “I will do the impossible, I will change the world.” Quite ballsy.
It would seem that I am destined for failure. But I am undeterred. As humans, we possess a natural impulse to explore and to create.
Observe the behaviour of a child unfettered by rules and fears; their spirits quake in delight as they discover the world around them. I believe that we are most human when we are engaged in acts of discovery or creation, whether we’re finding a cure, producing a painting, developing a new product, or laying bricks to create a wall.
But then there is another impulse, the socially-constructed impulse of fear of failure, wrapped up in the rules and fears of society. Some will remind us that fear, too, is a natural impulse, that fear of danger is a good thing, and I agree. But fear that robs us of our humanity can never be a good thing. Fear of failure can dampen our impulse to create and explore, and dulls our experience of life.
So, how do we ensure that our life is dominated by the creative, and not the fearful impulse?
We must decide.
I believe that success and excellence begins with the decision to succeed, and the will to excel. Every great achievement starts with a decision to pursue a path of greatness. Even though every great journey starts with one step, that first step is always preceded by the decision to walk.
But to live such a life, a life of success, requires that we be weird! Why? Our social systems are designed for efficiency. Efficiency requires conformity. And those who conform, who merely go through the dreary motions of life unconsciously, end up with lives of mediocrity.
Conformity is the death of success.
Any great achiever, whether in science, music, sport, or business, always thinks and behaves differently from the crowd. They’re weird because they have decided to reject the narrow expectations of conformity – being reasonable, playing it safe, doing what’s possible. They have the courage to follow a different path, a path of possibility, not a path of security – a path of least regret, not a path of least resistance. There is great comfort in conformity and mediocrity, and I believe most people who have great talents end up living mediocre lives because they are afraid to excel.
|Fear of failure can dampen our impulse to create and explore, and dulls our experience of life.|
Because excellence requires difference, and difference is seen as weird. What a shame! I was seen as weird when, at 24, I quit my job to go to the US and do a Master’s degree, alone, homeless, and with no money. I was weird when I started a strategy advisory firm at 32, and when I quit my corporate career at 40, and sold my possessions to start Read to Rise, an NGO that seeks to rid South Africa of youth illiteracy.
And I was the weirdest when, at 42, I decided to return to university to embark on a six-year programme of study.
This, to equip myself to think differently about social and economic systems that might put humanity on a more hopeful path. Weird!
I am an engineer who writes poetry and children’s books, a businessman who studies philosophy. But I have touched lives with my writing, and inspired young children to rise above their circumstances.
I am “a billionaire of fun” just as my poem said I’d be.
Adapting to the world by following the rules is the worst thing that anyone can do. Humanity would be extinct if we did this. We need to adapt the world to our vision of a more prosperous, and peaceful, and meaningful life on earth. We need to discover and create the reality of our most outrageous dreams.
“I will rise up, as sure as the sun.” This is my motto, which I needed growing up under apartheid, when everything around me pointed to me living a mediocre life. I decided that I would not have my spirit dulled, I decided to succeed by my measure of success, and in my way. I am weird and I love it.
Will I do the impossible and change the world?
I don’t know, but I know that as long as I decide to try and remain weird, I have a shot. I have decided to live a life of possibility, exploring and creating.
Most of all, I have decided that I will be weird, because the alternative of conforming and being mediocre, is just too bleak.
Please join me.
About Athol Williams:
Athol Williams is the author of Pushing Boulders: Oppressed to Inspired, which tells of his journey from Mitchells Plain to earning Master’s degrees from five of the world’s top universities including Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the London School of Economics. He is the only person to be awarded the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award twice.
Athol has held senior executive roles in the US, UK and South Africa, and has served on numerous corporate boards. He has written seven books, and serves as the chairman of Read to Rise. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Oxford University.