In The Face Of The Unfathomable, Seek Joy

In the face of the unfathomable, the most powerful thing that one can do is to seek hope, joy, and connection.

It doesn’t make the nonsensical, sensible. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does add energy, it does build resilience, it does make it possible to live the next day, to make a difference, to be kind to oneself and others.

It is that spirit that enervates today’s newsletter. We look away from what we know is there to drink from hope.

The US Presidential inauguration this week had both the eldest president and the youngest poet to ever share that platform. Success can happen at any age.

In this month, a man named Trevor from Soweto purchased a mansion in Bel-Air for $27.5 million. Another chap from Pretoria named Elon became the world’s wealthiest man. You can come from anywhere and achieve success.

In a much humbler world, a coach called Karl gets to start his mornings with these morning walks, in a spot that the New York Times recently included as one of its 52 Places To Love In 2021 (please ignore my 7-kilo weight gain. I’ve managed to pause the lockdown expansion, but I haven’t yet shrunk back). Sometimes, there’s beauty on your doorstep.

And how can you not love the courage of this young boy who approached Prof Wole Soyinka on the train between Lagos and Abeokuta, to ask for his autograph?

Port Elizabeth based performance-artist, Luke Rudman, collaborated with the iconic Dr. Esther Mahlangu to create this masterpiece to celebrate the 5-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement. I find myself overwhelmed with beauty and peace as I look at. It’s impossible not to be moved, not to have one’s soul fill with possibility.

What makes you smile? Tell someone about it.

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Gregg Popovich is the celebrated coach of the San Antonio Spurs. He has more wins than any other coach in NBA history. He is also renowned as a lover of fine wine and food.

This ESPN piece by Baxter Holmes draws the links between his epicurean passions and his leadership. It’s a brilliant account of a leadership style that can only come from within, and therefore is completely authentic (I learnt of this article thank to Tim Ferriss’s Five Bullet Friday).

Holmes says he spent 18 months researching the article to answer this question, “Why does Popovich — the NBA’s all-time winningest coach and architect of a two-decades-long basketball dynasty — care so damn much about dinner?”

Even when Popovich was starting out and there wasn’t the money for Michelin-starred restaurants, he and his wife would host team dinners in their apartment located in a college dorm. He saw it as critical that his team spent time together off the field. It gave them opportunities for deeper connection.

A former Spurs player noted that, “Dinners help us have a better understanding of each individual person, which brings us closer to each other — and, on the court, understand each other better.” Another player said that Popovich’s dinners gave him some of the best memories of his career. Imagine being able to give that to the people who work with you, the best memories of their careers.

Popovich picks the restaurants. He determines the seating plan. He buys the whites from the restaurant but sends reds from the depths of his private cellar. It’s a carefully orchestrated production to ensure connection.

The meals have happened win or lose. Indeed, as Holmes makes clear, the post-loss dinners have been the most impactful. Popovich uses them to signal his regard for his team regardless of the outcome, for the fact that sometimes in basketball and in life, you can do your best and still lose, that he wants to be with them regardless. In those moments he was gentle. He offered care and the possibility for connection. He understood that his team wanted to win, but still lost. The moment for reformulating strategy, for practice and improvement would come but that moment was to connect, was to build the web that would hold the future performance.

At the end of one year, he presented each player with a bottle of wine that he had chosen for them from his private collection. With each gift, he explained the characteristics of the wine and why it was suitable for that particular player. In doing this he showed each person that he saw them in their uniqueness, and who wouldn’t want to do their best for someone who pays you such particular, exacting, and caring attention?

It’s that consistent commitment to his players that has laid the basis for his incredible track record.

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Sometimes the only way through is to confront life head-on with a touch of irreverence.

I loved Will Santino’s “No. More. Lemons. Please.” There is only so much looking on the bright side that one can do.

There have been moments where I have wanted to embrace the kind of nihilism captured so brilliantly by Lainey Molnar. Instead, I would schmokkel myself that we were having a champagne breakfast, so it was okay. Heck, it has worked so far.

On my worst days, this level of resignation from Lars Kenseth was spot on. And without a doubt, I had a number of days that looked exactly like this December cover from The New Yorker.

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In the past year, I’ve sometimes felt like I didn’t have the energy for the unfolding of a novel or biography and so I’ve turned increasingly to collections of short stories. I wanted something that I could start and end in a few moments. As I write this, it strikes me that in reading short stories, I was perhaps mirroring my hope of getting to the end of this period as quickly as possible.

Joburg Noir is a collection of 20 short stories edited by Niq Mhlongo.

I loved Gloria Bosman’s A Little Something From the Pot and Sam Mathe’s Yeoville.

I was surprised to see Bosman’s short story. I know her not as an author, but as a jazz musician. Seeing her name took me back to the Bassline in Melville, Johannesburg. The place that in the 1990s I spent many nights listening to the late Zim Ngqawana, Jimmy Dludlu and Vusi Mahlasela, amongst others.

I once spent a hushed Sunday afternoon with two dozen others seated around a baby grand whilst Abdullah Ibrahim played. We were both enthralled to be there and terrified of incurring his legendary wrath by breathing too loudly whilst he played.

Her story free-associates its way through Joburg, stringing together names and sights. She says that Johannesburg “belongs to everyone who dares drink from its occasionally sobering and mostly intoxicating fountain.”

As a student, on the occasional Sunday night, I would climb into my 14-year-old Ford Escort and rattle my way to Yeoville’s House of Tandoor. Mathe’s story, like Bosman’s, is really a roll call, an honour board, of the names and places that formed the fabric of that place. It brought back good memories.

The protagonist in Zia Haider Rahman’s In The Light of What We Know muses, borrows a line from Graham Greene’s Travels with My Aunt saying, “It is well to have a few memories of extravagance in store for hard times.”

Bosman and Mathe reminded me that I have had a blessed life, one filled with beautiful memories that I can treasure in this hard time.

I hope that today’s letter has brought a smile to your heart, has prompted memories that fill your soul, and has got you planning for that first lavish dinner where its luxury will be the connection with those you love.

Forward this letter to a friend with whom you’ve shared many a glass of wine. Include a note that tells them what makes them special to you.

We can all benefit from being seen by those who love us.

Best wishes

Karl

PS: If you’ve received this letter from a friend, you can subscribe here, and if you’d like to know more about me, check out my LinkedIn profile.

PPS: Julie Zhuo’s book The Making of a Manager triggered a lot of interest.  Here are some my favourite quotations.

(This letter was first published on 24 January 2021)

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