From anxiety to action: Arnie Witkin’s lessons in life for Western Cape schools

Arnie Witkin, a seasoned investment manager and private equity professional, has led a multifaceted career. After retiring, he transitioned into a speechwriter, executive coach, and mentor. For over six decades, he diligently recorded his thoughts, and around the age of 80, he decided to compile them into a book for his grandchildren. From there it gained momentum and he decided to self-publish a book, titled It’s Not a Big Thing in Life, which is a guide on how to get from anxiety to action. The book caught the attention of Portia Smit from the Western Cape Education Department, who described it as a ‘genuine blessing’ for her parenting journey” and it is now part of the Department’s curriculum for Life Orientation .In an interview with Biznews, Witkin said that his main philosophy is that you are responsible for yourself, no matter what your circumstances are. His silver bullet to stop being like the Charles Dickens character, Miss Havisham is to put your thoughts down on paper to transform worries into tangible steps forward. Additionally, he shares strategies for navigating social media and emphasises the importance of humour in coping with challenges.

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Highlights from the interview

From an accountant at the Playboy Club, stockbroker, private equity to life coach and writer 

My background is that I qualified as an accountant in 1966. I lived in London for two years. I was the accountant of the Playboy Club. I came back to Johannesburg, I was a stockbroker for six years. I was the investment manager of the Legal and General Insurance Company for another seven years. And in 1982, I started New Bernica which was the first private equity company in South Africa. In 1989, we immigrated to England, but I couldn’t get anything going. So in 1994, I came back to do business in South Africa with another private equity company. And then in 2001, I got cancer. I couldn’t speak for three years and in 2004, I retired and after an operation, I got my voice back so I could become a speechwriter and teach people how to speak in public.

Thoughts written down for 60 years were put into a book for grandchildren 

For 60-70 odd years, I have been writing down my thoughts. One day I looked at this enormous file, and decided I’d put them into a Word document, which I headed ‘Considerations for my grandchildren.’ There were about 10 pages of bullet points. I showed it to a friend of mine’s granddaughter who was going to university. I said, there might be some things here which are interesting. She came back, she said, this cannot be for your grandchildren. This has to be for the whole world. So I went about writing the book. I rewrote it four times. Of course, every time I wrote it, people said it was just a lot of bullet points. So I fleshed it out finally when it was a real book and every one of the bullet points was illustrated by a story and there were 65 different topics which are strategies for coping with life.

Number one message: You are responsible for yourself, can’t be Dickens’ Miss Havisham  

The number one message I want to get across is that you are totally responsible for yourself. You can have no expectations or demands of anybody. If something goes wrong, you’ve got to fix it. You can’t blame your parents, you can’t blame your children, your friends, the weather, the government, God. If something happens, you’ve only got once you’ve acknowledged the feeling, you’ve got one question. What am I going to do about it? What’s my plan?

There are some things which are very, very huge in life where the decision is made for you. I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about where you can function and actually make the decision. A principal character in the book is Miss Havisham from Great Expectations by Dickens. She was left at the altar and the book takes place 30 years later and she’s still wearing the wedding dress. The wedding table is laid out. She never left that moment. Now what I’m saying is at some point in that 30-year cycle you’ve got to say, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to put my life in order? 20 years, 10 years, 5 years, a year, it’s a long time, a month, a week, a day, an hour, a minute, a second. Now the second is a very short space of time but you know within a week or two weeks you should be able to do something.

A magic bullet to go from anxiety to action: Writing them down 

How you get to what you do is you write it down. The magical bullet for solving problems is to write them all down. You put down what the problem is, what your options are, what your resources are, and then you put down as many as you can. And I’ve found that every single time I’ve got a problem from massive career decisions to what kind of party we should have for our 50th wedding anniversary. When you write it all down the answer comes out like a pop-up book that kids get with trees and forests and princesses. It’s a pillar of fire in a dark night, a pillar of cloud during the day. The answer appears when you write down your problems, you go from anxiety to action because when it’s in your head, if you write it down, the answer becomes clear. You go from procrastination to progress. This is a major theme of my book, strategies for coping. Whatever the problem is, write it down, what are your options, who can help you, I’m responsible. That is the major theme in the book.

But what would you say to somebody who says that might be easy for you? I come from a different, difficult background.

You start with a status quo. I will sit at home and play video games all day. What other options have I got? Where can I find a job? Where can I look? Is there a government agency? Can I go back to my school and find out? Have I exhausted looking at publications online? There are always jobs. There’s no such thing as nothing. Your action is your decision. So if you’re in the townships, you need this even more because you may have fewer options, but you have options. And particularly in the Western Cape, where unemployment is a lot less than in the rest of the country. You go to friends and ask what skills have I got? Could I work in someone’s garden? Could I do someone’s hair? Could I become an Uber driver? Could I get a job with Pick and Pay? Could I go to university? Are there courses I could do? The people in the townships need it as much as anybody else.

If you spend your life on social media, take responsibility for it

Well, social media is both a boon and if you spend too much time on it, it’s a disaster. But you’ve got to want to do something different. So if you want to spend all your time on social media, take responsibility for that. And if because you’re responsible for yourself, there’s no use saying, I’m inundated with all this because you can turn off your social media. But Social media keeps you in contact. You know, you’ve got friends on social media. I avoided social media because I didn’t want to be, I didn’t want to have that profile. But when I went in, I really enjoyed it. So if you find yourself spending too much time, take responsibility. Don’t blame social media. Use it for the benefits of social media.

The importance of humour in coping, but never be racist or humiliate  

Humour is vitally important. I’ve got a whole chapter on a sense of humour. First of all, when you connect with people, you’ll never laugh at the joke of someone you don’t like. So when you connect and you make a joke, If the other person laughs, you’ve got an immediate connection. Now, if they don’t laugh, it could be okay, because the joke may not be funny. But I find that when you can laugh at yourself and you can use self-deprecating humour, that’s extremely powerful. The other thing is that personal view. One of the barometers of any relationship is how much you laugh together about anything really. But when there’s a humourless relationship, and it includes at work by the way, then it’s probably not a great relationship. So, a sense of humour is vital as long as you never, ever tell a racist joke. Never, ever humiliate anybody, even though it sounds funny which creates a thought out of the ordinary. When you do that and someone laughs, you’ve got a fantastic connection.

Western Cape Education Department distributed ‘It is not a big thing in life’ to 6000 teachers 

When I realised they had a subject called life orientation, I wrote to them, I said, my book may be interesting to you because the subheadings are strategies for coping for my adult grandchildren. So I thought, okay. So I wrote to them and I said, maybe this is something which you could use. And to my surprise, they said, yes. and I met with Ismail Teladia, the head of curriculum. Extraordinary, professional, dedicated, passionate. And..loved the book. A woman called Portia Smith, one of the heads of the languages, really thought it was, it touched her particularly, and said it was an essential part of her parenting journey. And they’ve distributed the book to all of their teachers, their 6,000 teachers in the Western Cape. And they’ve created exercises from the book for the pupils to work on. So it’s a working manual. So it gave me a huge amount of energy because, you know, when you’re nearly 80, there’s a struggle for relevance. You can become invisible. So it’s… It was a tremendous fillip to my overall demeanour because now that they’ve distributed the books and that fantastic feedback where it’s changed people’s lives dramatically in some instances. 

How the book helped people to change their lives 

One woman had a conflict. My definition of conflict is when your body and your mind aren’t in the same place. So her body was in a job, and her mind was on opening up a health shop. So she wrote it down, she wrote down health job, she wrote down job, and she wrote down everything she could. And the answer she said came out as I said because it was clear that she wasn’t an entrepreneur. So, she decided to put my mind where my body was. My body’s in the job and she decided to focus on the job. Within six weeks, she got a massive promotion. 

Another woman was in an abusive relationship. She couldn’t get out of it. She wrote it down, stay, go. She said it became absolutely clear that she had to go, because I said, you’re responsible for yourself, you can’t blame the person, you’re in a relationship, and if you’re going to stay, then make the most of it. She excommunicated her mother after 40 years because her mother was abusive to her. So I’ve had this amazing feedback from so many people. One young guy keeps the book next to his bed. If he’s got any problem at all, he refers to it. He calls it his Bible. I told him not to tell his priest.

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