One of my weak points is laziness. As a child I held a grudge against my parents for not being wealthy enough to afford servants and spare me the irksome chores imposed on me at home. At school I achieved poorly and was thrown out of university for consistent non-performance. And I resented being told to go out and get a job. Any job.
Some busybody once described me as ‘shiftless’ on account of my inability to remain employed for more than a few months at a time. My own father called me ‘work-shy.’
Then, when I was in my late twenties, I happened to be in a bar one morning and made the acquaintance of a man who gave me some valuable advice. I was drawing unemployment benefits at that stage and had plenty of time on my hands. That’s why I was sitting in the Astoria in Hermanus in the middle of the week. This guy of about 50 was already half drunk but I told him my life story, anyway.
“Man,” he said, when I was finished, “You got a problem. You know what your problem is? Your problem is you are unsuitable employee material. Stop trying to be an employee and become an employer instead. Start your own business.”
“What kind of business?” I said.
“Any business,’ he said. “Alright, I’ll decide for you. Become a builder.”
“But I don’t know the first thing about building,” I objected.
“No sweat,” he said. “What you do is this. You borrow some money from a relative, or a friend, or somebody, and you buy yourself a second hand bakkie. Then you hire a bricklayer and tell him you’ll make him foreman. Right, now you’ve got some brains to pick. Next, you look for an odd job, something easy like a garden wall. The bricky will know how to build it and, of course, all the time you must be stealing with your eyes and learning the ropes. Then you look for another job, and away you go. But,” he said, Remember this one thing above everything else: always act like you’re in complete control and you know exactly what you’re doing. That’s how the Europeans colonised the world.”
Well, this man might have been a drunken loser but I followed his advice and it turned out to be sound. After six months I signed my first contract to build a house, and I never looked back. Whenever I encountered a practical problem that I didn’t have the know-how to solve, I would tell my employees I had an appointment, and when I came back in two hours, I wanted the job done.
It’s amazing how resourceful a bunch of workers can be, and 9 times out of ten they didn’t disappoint me. And of course I always pretended to have known the answer to the problem they had solved on their own.
I continued to use this strategy in all my various business endeavours over the years and it served me well. The man in the bar was right: it was all about taking control and getting others to work well and make you rich in the process. My own kids seem to have inherited their father’s laziness and their mother’s scatter brains, but I’m not worried about them, having sent them to expensive private schools where they were taught the attitude that I had to learn the hard way. I’ve given them a good start and can enjoy retirement knowing that their privileged way of life is secure.