Sunday, 31 December 2017

“Thank you! Thank you very much!” the man says as he clasps his fingers around the trophy with the numbers “2-0-1-7”. “I would like to thank my parents, my wife, my two sisters and their spouses, our two cats, the people at the vegetarian buffet, the people who pay me to help them speak English, the Taiwanese government that still allows me to live on their island, our friendly neighbours, and lastly, everyone on the internet who wrote such good articles this year that made me much smarter, and that enabled me to bore to tears even more people on social functions. I could not have done it without you all. Thank you again!”

The man seems to want to let go of the microphone to return to his seat. But then he adjusts his grip and continues.

“I can certainly say I have had a good year – as surely many of us can say.” He narrows his eyes to see if anyone is nodding their heads. “It is, however, a fact that I usually decide every year I’ve had a good year, regardless of how many times I fell flat on my face.” The usual tense chuckle follows. “Well, this year was no exception. It has been very educational. Two things stand out. No matter how long one tries to make a success of something, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Maybe it’s because you’re stupid, or maybe because it’s something you subconsciously think is a waste of time. Whatever the reason, for a long time I thought if I stuck to something for long enough, I will be successful in a specific endeavour. Lesson one of this year is that this is not necessarily true. Lesson two has to do with value. Just because you’re convinced something has value … or maybe you’ve developed a formula that at first glance seems very complex that convinces you something is valuable is not to say you have to put your money where your formula is. Were you to do that, you may fall on your face quite comprehensively.

“There were of course many other things I learned, and not all these things required me to plant my mug in the mud!” Another chuckle. Then the man hears a few sighs, and he’s sure he’s observing a sudden increase in fumbling with electronic devices.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen – and all the genders in between, you’re all excited to celebrate the new year. I am too! All that remains is for me to wish you all a prosperous 2018. Look after yourselves, look after your loved ones – including your pets and your children, eat healthy food, exercise regularly, don’t waste your money but occasionally spend some money on something nice, and take responsibility for your own upcoming success. May the next year be one of your best years ever!”


Delivering value and playing games


What does it mean to “make” money? Do you bake it like a cake? Do you cook it? Do you throw a bunch of ingredients together and call it “money”? The phrase is misleading. No wonder so many people struggle to make a living!

First of all, what is money? Money gives you the ability to get the things you need or want.

To earn a living, most people are happy to accept a position at an institution or a company, and then to earn a fixed salary for decades. Sometimes this salary is sufficient; sometimes not. If it is not enough, people think very hard about how to make more money. If they go through times when they’re not in the employ of an institution or a company, they think about it even harder. Failure is often the order of the day.

Here the value kicks in of seeing something you’re struggling with in a different light. Think about how you can create value and how you can provide it to the people who need or want it, and who are willing to pay for it. Don’t think of “making money” – think about creating value. Think about providing a valuable service. I believe most of us can come up with more ways of providing value than we can come up with vague ways of making money. To give value to others is also something that comes naturally to many people.

Of course, if you already provide value but you don’t deliver enough of it, or you don’t do it on a regular enough basis, you won’t earn enough money from it to get what you need or would like to have. Many people also find themselves in situations where they provide something that can be provided by dozens or even hundreds of other people, maybe even at a lower price.

Another way to obtain money is to master some game well enough to win more than you lose. People who hustle on the stock market play a game. They themselves may differ from this view, but at the end of the day it’s only a little less or a little more complex than Pacman, or Bubbles or any other game you play on your phone. Some people will argue that no money is involved in such games. Think of poker. Every year, millions of dollars are pushed across poker tables. Same with other card games like Blackjack, and other casino games like Roulette. These activities are all entertaining, and yet untold amounts of money exchange hands. In a similar vein, just because there’s a lot of money involved in the buying and selling of shares doesn’t make it less of a game. The same can be said of the foreign exchange market.

Ask yourself if it’s easy for you to make money. Now ask yourself whether you have mastered at least one game well enough to win more than you lose, or to play it well enough to record a new high score or reach a new level every now and then. I count myself among the masses that have always found it hard to make money. But I can think of many board, card, and electronic games that I have mastered quite well over the years. I’ve also tried my hand at speculating on a few markets. I can confirm that the idea of losing money is terrifying, but the actions you need to take to succeed are not much more complicated than succeeding at Super Mario, for example – maybe even easier, as any person who has ever played Super Mario until the final mushroom can testify.

My advice for myself and for other people who hope to improve their financial affairs is to be honest about the amount of value you provide and to how many people you provide this value, and if necessary, to make changes, or to change to a whole new market. And if you don’t see yourself in the value business or you simply want to widen your options, I suggest you familiarise yourself with a “game” that you might not find much more complicated than a good round of chess.


Confronting my blueprints – and fixing them


I received a number of blueprints from my parents: specific primary language but also awareness of the value of a particular secondary language, specific culture, specific moral values, specific religion, and specific ideas and expectations about money and the process of making money as an adult.

I have confronted the language (Afrikaans), and accepted it as good enough for my needs. I also accepted that the secondary language (English) had considerable value – as confirmed and modelled by my parents, and also mastered this language.

I have confronted the specific culture (Afrikaans/South African culture) and accepted it as good enough for my needs – everyone needs “culture” as part of their identity and as part of the way they fit into the broad community.

The particular moral values I confronted, and accepted most of them as fair and noble.

Finally, I also confronted the particular religion, and to a large extent found that it lacked credibility. With time, the “energy” that the specific religious worldview and frame of reference had had in my brain got exhausted (since it wasn’t being regularly refreshed and fortified), and I replaced it with an alternative worldview and an alternative frame of reference.

The specific relationship with money, ideas about how adult life works, and what my expectations should be when my turn arrived to start earning money as an adult to sustain myself and possibly other people … were more difficult to confront. These things didn’t have a name like a nationality with accompanying symbolism. Poverty and wealth were universal. Good people struggled all over the world to keep their heads above water. Ideas about money and how adult life works and what my expectations should be were not specific in the same way that the religion with which I grew up was specific and visibly different from what people believed and did in, for example, India, or Saudi Arabia. It was also easier to interpret failures as the result of my particular personality, even my specific ambitions – for example, I preferred spending time on my own projects to selling my time to someone else, who I feared would oblige me to do boring, simplistic tasks.

I rebelled against the ideas I grew up with. “Money isn’t everything,” I said. “I’ll show them,” I said. “They will not get the best of me.” [12/10/18: I thought I had rebelled against the ideas I grew up with, but I only rebelled against certain aspects. The expectation of failure had been fully internalised.]

I had visions of becoming a hermit, and of breaking away from the conventional way of doing things.

Unfortunately, I had to eat, pay rent, and buy clothes. And seeing that I was earning a living in Northeast Asia in an attempt to get away from the bad world where things didn’t work out for my parents, and where I fully expected things to not work out for me (meaning, the suburban middle class in South Africa), I also had to buy a plane ticket every year or two to visit my family.

Eventually I met a woman whom I liked very much and who I wanted as my life partner. I was deeply aware of the difference that more money would have made in our lives. But how? More knowledge was surely the answer, I believed. Learn how to make money. Be bold. Imagine you can be a good salesman. Learn how to trade on the financial markets. If I could only learn the right lessons about making money, I reckoned, get good advice on what to do when, and have money to spend on knowledge and opportunities and resources, it was just a matter of time.

It’s been more than twenty years since I graduated from university. I’ve become clever about many topics related to making money. I know how to publish and market books; how to develop and sell websites; how to write reviews about products, publish them on the web, and make money when people buy the product; and how to earn money trading foreign currencies. But how do I make most of my income? By selling my time to local language centres and helping people improve their English. Seeing that most of my students are adults and that most of the classes have a social value that is not unpleasant, I can say that it’s not a bad way to make money.

There are, however, a few rhetorical questions I can’t ignore: Is this method of earning an income sustainable? Do I save enough money with this job to last me into old age? If I lose my ability to do this job in an accident, will I receive compensation?

Has my current financial position something to do with the ideas I received when I was younger? Does it have anything to do with the expectations I developed of how adult life works, especially when it comes to earning a living?


It sounds like I blame my parents for me not doing better financially, and I don’t like it. But it would be dishonest to claim that I’m not laying some blame at their doorstep – they did program me after all with a faulty operating system, or with programming that only worked for some people in the decades when my parents had to make a living as young adults.

It is, however, and has been, my responsibility to confront any faulty programming I had received as a young “robot”. And I cannot, and do not, blame my parents for my failure to realise, a long time ago, what the problem was, nor do I blame them for my failure to remedy the situation in a more timely manner.


Upgrading my financial intelligence


In the late nineties Robert Kiyosaki wrote a book about financial literacy and financial independence. As is often the case, I had been years behind most other people, and only recently read Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Some thoughts about it.

I get the idea that you shouldn’t necessarily focus on trying to get “rich” – the lesson one expects from a book that teaches you about money. What you should do is to develop assets, like rental property, a stock portfolio, investment funds, and digital assets like websites.

Say your living expenses, including housing and food, and insurance policies and retirement policies and medical insurance, and travel and short trips, and so on run to $2000 per month. If income from your portfolio of assets is stable and constant without the need to perform any (or much) additional work, and it exceeds your $2000 budget, work you perform for monetary gain is optional.

This means you’ll be financially independent – even if you’re not “rich” in a way that the concept is usually understood.


I understand now that it’s not just about becoming “rich” but about improving your financial intelligence. What does it help after all if your income grows to five or ten times more than before, but your expenses also multiply by five or ten times?



I’m currently reading Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker.

Eker refers to the financial blueprint one receives from your parents as a child. If I look back over the years, it seems that I, too, accepted the blueprint I received from my parents – to a large extent from my father. I assumed that I was probably going to struggle financially, no matter how hard I worked.

So what do I do now as an adult decades later? I work hard, but on projects that are not intended to make money. I’m doing it because it makes me happy, and because I feel I can leave something of my life behind in this way.

Fair enough, one will say, but it is still the result of me who decided the blueprint I had received from my parents was simply how the world works and how it should be. Fact is, it is not.

[It can be said that much of what I have written since 1994 was me wrestling with my blueprint and the world in which I had to function. Eventually I made an uncomfortable peace with the world and continued my life as I found fit. What cannot be denied is that many of the positions I took and many of the statements I made were still the Blueprint speaking. And I so completely accepted and internalised the blueprint that I would say what I had said without blinking an eye – unaware that I was in a semi-hypnotised state.]


In the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, the psychologist, Daniel Kahneman writes about experiments he and his team performed that proved how easily people can be manipulated – even if they are told there’s a possibility it will happen.

In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams mentions that it’s better to think of yourself as a programmable robot than a “fleshy bag full of magic”.

In Trading in the Zone, Mark Douglas explains how to overcome beliefs that are obstacles in the path to success, to tap the energy out of them, and to create new beliefs that you then activate and eventually fill with energy.

And in Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, T. Harv Eker writes how your relationship with money as an adult, and how successful you are at making money, directly result from the programming you received as a child – verbally (“Rich people are greedy,” or in my case, work hard, but if it’s “God’s will”, you’ll end up with nothing), by modelling (you saw how your parents worked hard but never had enough money), and by what he calls emotional incidents that left a big impression on you as a child (for me, 1985: mysterious powers of which I know or understand nothing take some of our stuff – including a box of my childhood toys in the garage. Apparently it’s not theft. The law is on their side. Implants the idea of THEM – lawyers, bailiffs, and other powerful characters who can crush the little people any time they want.).


My sister’s idiot brother abroad


Our TV finally sputtered its last, so I started looking on Netflix – which we can watch on the computer – for my daily hour or so of entertainment. So it came that I rediscovered Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s production, An Idiot Abroad with Karl Pilkington as the titular idiot.

For people who never followed the show: Karl Pilkington was a producer on a radio program hosted by Gervais and Merchant, after they had achieved success with the series, The Office. Pilkington gained fame after being approached several times for his comments on the radio program. His unique views on life and his honest opinions became a popular part of the program. A few years later, Gervais and Merchant came up with the idea to make their former producer the host of a travel program. Pilkington, known for having no enthusiasm for foreign countries and international journeys, was to visit the Seven Wonders of the World, with some additional tasks and hardships thrown in for the entertainment of the two producers, and of course, for millions of TV viewers.

Every episode of The Idiot Abroad starts with Gervais and Merchant explaining to Pilkington where he would travel. They would show him a picture of the main attraction, and then wait for him to comment on his forthcoming journey with his trademark sincerity. Gervais usually explodes in hysterical laughter when Pilkington speaks, and would even repeat what Karl had said to his partner Stephen Merchant, just in case Merchant failed to understand quite how funny it was.

By the second or third episode it dawned on me that the situation seemed very familiar. My older sister regularly responds in the exact same way to some of my utterances. She will laugh hysterically and immediately translate so that her British husband, who doesn’t understand Afrikaans that well, can also share in the hilarity. Then it hit me: My sister thinks of me as her idiot brother – who just happens to live abroad.

This reminded me of the time when I went to Hong Kong for a long weekend, a few months after I had arrived in Taiwan. My sister wanted to visit some friends who had worked with her in London a year or two earlier, and she thought it would be nice if I could meet her there. We went out one day with her friends. I behaved most modestly all afternoon, and didn’t have much to say. After dinner we ended up at an outdoor restaurant for drinks. I was probably tired by this time of keeping my mouth shut and started sharing my amateur psycho-analysis of some of the other customers. Seeing that my intellect was now “on”, I also noticed that my sister was becoming restless, with a tense glance at her friends every now and then.

I realised that I was being … peculiar – as she only knew I could be but certainly hoped I would keep under wraps whilst socialising with her and her colleagues. Nevertheless, I pushed on with my analysis and predictions of how I thought the rest of the evening would work out for the various people seated at one of the tables. As I suspected, in the end I did add a little sparkle to the evening for my sister and her friends – who were probably all talked out about work and the good old days in London.

About two years after the Hong Kong episode, my sister met the man whom she would marry. During the first few visits after they settled in South Africa I must have behaved reasonably normal, for it was only during the last few visits that I became aware again that my sister apparently thinks I am most hilarious – especially when I’m not trying to be.

Oh well, I look at the bright side: At least my statements occasionally elicit a somewhat hysterical reaction, even though it’s probably due to the person being relieved that I didn’t embarrass them rather than my observations being truly entertaining.