Perhaps simply not good enough



A professional tennis player retires at the age of 33. He did okay for himself. He could afford the mortgage on a three-bedroom house in an nice middle-class neighbourhood, and he could take care of his family.

He peaked when he was about 27 years old. He played in the fourth round of a Grand Slam tournament, and the following week he reached his highest ranking ever: 52.

He had a good coach at school, and his parents spent a lot of money to develop his talent. He was a pretty good tennis player – nobody could deny that. But even at his best he was simply not good enough to break into the top 50.


A young boy has been taking art classes for three years. The classes aren’t cheap, so one evening the father asks if he could take a look at his son’s drawings. He takes his time, and pensively studies every piece of paper that is laid before him.

Then he puts the pictures down and tells his wife he is going to take a stroll in the garden. Would she like to join him, he asks.

Near the rose bushes the man expresses his shock and asks his wife what the heck is going on. Three years of art classes, and those sketches are the best their son can do?

His wife defends the child. Maybe he just doesn’t have the talent for art, she suggests.

“Okay,” her husband replies, “but couldn’t we have realised that two years ago?”


Beat the drum with conviction, or hang your head in shame


This morning I watched a program titled Heart of Taiko, about the traditional Japanese drum. The program follows three Malay-Japanese teenage girls who had established a taiko group in Penang. They are invited to attend a workshop at a legendary manufacturer of taiko drums in Japan. They meet three of the country’s top female players, who will teach them technique and correct conduct. At the end of the few days it is expected of the group of teenagers to perform with the Japanese professionals in front of a select audience.

The younger of the three Japanese drummers take the lead in the young students’ training. She is critical from the start. The girls don’t play together. They show a lack of commitment. She gives them packs of magazines wrapped in paper to practice on, and she wonders the next day why the packs are not in shreds. She looks at their hands. Why are they not bruised? Why are there no blisters? She takes them to a windy beach where they have to stand with their legs apart while holding heavy drumsticks above their heads as they scream something. This while a strong wind is blowing at them. They do okay, but still leave their instructor unimpressed.

The next day they go to a monastery to meditate – they sit quietly on pillows, staring at a white wall. After the session, one girl describes it as a very helpful experience. She says she learned that you have to be fully present in the moment.

They go back to the training centre. They train harder.

The next day they again play their drums for their teacher – the young, professional taiko master. This time she smiles. They still make a lot of mistakes, she says. There’s a lot they still have to learn. But, and this she says with great satisfaction – she could see more dedication in their eyes. She also sees it in their arm movements, the arms being lifted high and brought down hard on the drum skin. And their screams were loud and full of energy.

And they learn: Technical mistakes are one thing; we work on them. Everybody makes mistakes at the beginning. Mistakes can be forgiven. What is unforgivable, what is in fact a great embarrassment to all concerned, is lack of dedication.


More sensory happiness, and my ambitions might have faded


If I were happy in Stellenbosch in 1994 and ‘95, happy in Korea in 1996 and especially ‘97 and ‘98, happy in Johannesburg in 1998, and happy in Taiwan for the first few years – and with happiness I mean more money, initially, and later also regular female companionship, I wouldn’t have produced as much text as I ended up producing.

To write was for a long time a mechanism for me to cope with loneliness, stress and boredom. It was only since 2003 that I really started thinking about myself as a writer who may have something to say. I had spoken (and written) about my ambition to write before 2003, but I think if I had experienced more sensory happiness in the middle to late nineties and the early years of the new decade my ambitions to write would have faded.


The Russian Revolution, and my attempts at living a relatively normal life


The last few weeks I have once again been spending time editing and translating material that I had written in the mid to late nineties and early noughts. As I was riding back from work this afternoon, I thought about some of the themes that had repeatedly popped up in the material. I also thought that I am still a little embarrassed about the fact that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life in my twenties, and even my early thirties. I did not have a proper plan of action, I didn’t know what kind of success I was supposed to pursue, and my understanding of life wasn’t comprehensive enough to guide me through the decisions I needed to make.

As I continued on my way home, one thought made room for the next. I pondered my solemn intention from yesterday about taking a nap this afternoon after finishing my usual tasks on the computer, and then after the nap to start on the new book that I had bought recently for my Kindle (about the unsolved murder of a 20-year-old British woman in Peking in 1937). That reminded me of the long article that I’m still working through on my reading device, and I wondered for a moment if I would finish that article first before I start with the new book. It’s mostly theory, I thought to myself, and it’s both difficult to read and a bit boring.

The article – actually a lecture given years ago at a conference – deals with Leon Trotsky – revolutionary, writer and political theorist of the early twentieth century. I thought how Trotsky, Lenin and other Bolsheviks like Nikolai Bukharin were “next level” smart. In between planning and attending conferences and hiding from police and arguing the fine points of ideology they also found time to write articles long enough to fill an entire notebook on the theory of political revolution. And because there was significant competition in the field of political revolution theory in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first two or three decades of the twentieth century, you couldn’t get away with flimsy arguments. Once someone had published a new piece, it was carefully studied for historical errors, inconsistencies and poorly formulated arguments. Only the writings of party leaders and political activists who were intellectually gifted and who had some degree of writing talent were taken seriously when decisions on policies and plans of action were made.

Boom! it hit me: Those revolutionaries who had wanted to take over political control of the old Russian Empire, who had actually managed to do so by November 1917, and then were left holding the bag, so to speak, did not know what they were doing! Not only did their plans of action change as circumstances required, there were also serious disagreements amongst the leadership on which theory should be followed when deciding on political, economic, and social policy. The world view and understanding of how human life was supposed to be conducted that had applied for centuries were also unceremoniously cast aside. The new leaders in the Kremlin paid homage to a radically different idea according to which they believed people’s lives ought to be managed. To determine policy, make decisions, and formulate and implement plans of action they needed more than a radical idea, though – they needed theories that merged understanding of human nature and politics and economic principles and a few other things into a coherent whole.

An overview of political theory in the time before, during and after the 1917 revolution is enough to either make your head spin or lull you to sleep. The old Social Revolutionary Party, for example, believed in the socialisation of land – that farmland should be distributed among the peasants, while Lenin and the Social Democratic Labour Party (from whose ranks the Bolsheviks came) believed in the collectivization of farmland – that is, to put it under state control. The SDLP defined class membership in terms of ownership of means of production, while the Social Revolutionaries defined class membership according to the surplus value that could be extracted from labour. According to the first definition, small farmers who practised subsistence farming, did not make use of any wage labour and owned the land which they tilled, were members of the petite bourgeoisie. According to the second definition, they could be grouped together with others who supplied labour rather than with people who purchased labour, and could therefore be seen with industrial workers as part of the working class. (This difference might seem like a mere academic point to some people today, but especially in the 1920s and 1930s it was a matter of life and death.) The rift that developed in the Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903 was also largely due to a difference of opinion regarding principles and theory. One of the main points on which the two factions differed was the definition of party member. Lenin and his supporters (who later became the Bolsheviks) insisted that candidates had to be a member of one of the party’s organisations, while their opponents reckoned it was good enough if the person only worked under the guidance of a party organisation. Finally, there was the difference between Leon Trotsky and his supporters in the 1920s who believed that the revolution should at all costs be exported to other countries, and their arch rival in the party, Joseph Stalin, who was of the opinion that socialism had to be established in one country first. (Again, it may look like a debate between nerds today, but Stalin felt strong enough about the matter to send an assassin who smashed an ice pick into Trotsky’s skull to end the argument.) Trotsky also subscribed to the idea of Permanent Revolution, which according to Wikipedia, is “the theory that the bourgeois democratic tasks in countries with delayed bourgeois democratic development can only be accomplished through the establishment of a workers’ state, and that the creation of a workers’ state would inevitably involve inroads against capitalist property. Thus, the accomplishment of bourgeois democratic tasks passes over into proletarian tasks.” (So much for the idea that a revolution is simply a matter of which side is better armed.)

Back to my own modest struggles of my twenties and early thirties. I did not have a country that fell into my lap like a ripe peach, but I did have my own life that stretched out before me. Like the Bolsheviks who had to work out in the 1920s (and of course the decades after, but that’s another story) how they would go about forming a government, set policies, and manage infrastructure and services that would affect millions of lives, so I had to decide how I would go about sending my life in a particular direction, and maybe do a few things that I could later look back on with more pride than shame. And just like the Bolsheviks rejected the ways of thinking and doing things of what had been the established political, economic and social order in Russia up to 1917, so I realized that I had to work out why I had to do one thing and not another, why I couldn’t simply follow in the footsteps of other people, and why what worked well for many of my contemporaries wouldn’t necessarily work for me. I couldn’t just set off and start “ruling” my own life. I had to work out why things were the way they were. I had to work out plans of action that would be consistent with what I had worked out, and with the “policies” that I had decided on.

Anyone who has some knowledge of twentieth-century history would know the Bolsheviks’ experiment ultimately failed. Smart people can explain where the theory that had been developed by Marx, Trotsky, Lenin and others were wrong, and where it might have worked had it not been for the destructive policies and senseless violence perpetrated by bloodthirsty thugs like Joseph Stalin.

After spending all that time trying to figure out how I wanted to live my life and why in such a way, where I had come from in the broader sense than just looking at my father and mother, and how I fit into the mass of stimuli outside of my skin, I can say in all honesty that my life is working out quite well. I know what changes I can still make to make it better. And if I have to, I can explain everything to someone who asks the right questions. Which, if I think about it, is not too bad, considering that I am very far from “next level” smart.


Useful rules for life, and for trading on the UK horseracing market


As I’m brushing my teeth, I think of an episode of a series on the crime channel about a man who had mysteriously fallen to his death while on his honeymoon on a cruise ship. Perhaps it was an accident. Or, perhaps it was a group of Russian-American men who had helped him in his drunken stupor to his cabin at four o’clock in the morning and then decided to rob him of the $17,000 in cash which he had boasted about, and threw him over the balcony when he tried to resist.

Whatever happened, one thing is certain: The man unfortunately did certain things that had increased the probability that something bad would happen. He had after all been very drunk when he started staggering back to his cabin, alone – except for the group of men who were certainly not his friends.

I thought how he had passed one red flag situation after another, and unfortunately for him he did not take the appropriate counteractions.

The idea of red-flag situations reminded me of my rules for pre-race trading on the UK horse racing market. I realised that these rules can often be applied to life in general.

The rules are as follows: 1) carefully consider a situation before you enter it; 2) manage red-flag situations in a calm and controlled manner; 3) if things don’t look good, get out as soon as possible; 4) do not be greedy (don’t take unnecessary risks when your actions have already produced a decent result).

In the case mentioned, if the unfortunate man had indeed been a victim of foul play, it could be said that there were a few aspects of his final ill-fated night that he had probably not seriously considered; when he found himself in red-flag situations, he either did not take any countermeasures or he was incapable of doing anything about it; at some point, things had definitely not looked good for him, but for various reasons he could not extricate himself from the situation (anymore); and seeing that he was actually in a very favourable situation prior to this series of events, being on his honeymoon on a luxury cruise ship, it could be suggested that it was an unnecessary excess to drink so heavily on that fateful night.

Rules certainly make for a boring life at times, but it cannot be denied that they can save you from financial ruin, and occasionally keep you from getting into trouble you may not be able to get out of.