Words from the wise: Arnie Witkin – Improve your life without trying too hard. Brilliant.

There was a time when Arnie Witkin’s name was instantly recognisable among South Africans in the financial services sector and beyond. He was a brilliant investor – first running the portfolio of the company that was to become MMI Holdings; then as the founder of a JSE-listed investment trust New Bernica and later as the country’s most prominent private equity manager via the Gensec NSA Fund. In the past couple decades Witkin has retreated from the limelight, investing time in his family, mentorship and coaching. We linked up again during my three recent years in the UK, whence he emigrated in 1989. Arnie still spends a lot of time in SA, and among his mentorship roles is helping ORT JET, a business networking organisation for small entrepreneurs, whose South African roots trace back to 1936. After reading my recent newsletter about the value of journaling, Arnie sent me a speech he delivered in February to an ORT JET gathering in Cape Town. Based on personal experience, it is full of wise, practical suggestions. The piece below deserves the widest possible audience. – Alec Hogg

By Arnie Witkin*

The A Team was a crime busting TV series in the eighties. The leader of this motley crew was Hannibal Smith. His catchphrase was, ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’

In 1989 the company of which I was CEO was sold and our family emigrated to the UK. I was going to take a sabbatical and see from there. The first year was fine, but then there was a huge recession and when I tried to start a private equity fund, which was my expertise, I was met with a stone wall. After three further years of not being able to start anything and living off capital I was in quite a depression. I had seven issues that were incapacitating, creating fear, anxiety and tension in the family. The immediate one was how to earn enough to live, longer term to have a career, a tax dispute in SA, tension at home, lack of self esteem and lack of self confidence. Living with me was probably like swimming in a murky pool filled with seaweed.

On a very bad day I locked myself in my study, cleared my desk, took a sheet of paper, and focused on writing down everything that was bothering me. I had seven headings and just brainstormed – what outcomes I wanted, my feelings, my anxieties, reality as opposed to blind fear, who could help me, what would happen if the status quo continued, what was in my control and what wasn’t, what options I had and the consequences of each, Just everything.

There is no such thing as no decision. By definition, your action is your decision, whether you think it is or not. I realised that I had ‘decided’ to stay in this state of inertia, even though it was slowly destroying me. Internal conflict is when your body and mind are not in the same place. So I set about getting my body to where my mind was.

When everything was written down, my fears all became concrete, exorcising the invisible ghosts floating around my psyche. Four of the problems disappeared immediately as I saw that the reality was really quite benign. It was like being in a hot air balloon. To get lift off, you need to jettison the sandbags that are weighing you down.

The tax query was out of my control, so why worry? In the event the revenue agreed with me.

For the lack of self esteem and self confidence my plan was to seek counselling. After all, I had been successful in the past. When a diamond falls into the mud it is still a diamond.

For the tension at home I applied my first rule of domestic conflict – when you’re right – apologise. That’s only half a joke – we’ve been married 45 years.

What remained was earning money and a career.

One of the possibilities was to come back to do business in SA, where I was well known. Before I wrote it down, in my head there were many reasons why it was a bad idea and I’d rejected it a few times. Splitting up a young family for a week a month, too much travelling, I needed a partner in SA, which I didn’t have, would I be crawling back with my tail between my legs? When I wrote everything down the solution exploded out of the page. It was patently obvious that this would solve the problem of current income and a long term career.

Visualisation was also important. I could see myself as the executive chairman of a listed company successfully doing what I did before. And then I had to act on the plan, which I did.

I found a partner in SA, made appointments to see 7 of the country’s top financial institutions and in two days raised R150m and we listed the company on the Stock Exchange. The institutions, who had all made money with me in my first company, were only too pleased to back me again. It was tough commuting once a month from London but I was thankful for my new career.

Why am I telling you this long story? I believe that I would not have made that decision without writing everything down and making a plan. The fears would have swirled around my head, debilitating me. I probably would have struggled to eke out a living trying to do some phantom deals.

I want you to take away one main message today. Whatever your problem or situation, write it down and write down everything you think and feel about it.

You can use the GROW model, which is used by coaches and mentors. It’s on the internet. I speak to a lot of people in very senior positions who confide in me and when I ask them if they’ve written down the problem, very few, if any have.

  1. What is your Goal? What outcome do you want? Visualise in detail what you want to achieve, for instance I can see that buyer ordering 100 products. I can see my product on the shelves of Harrods;
  2. What is the Reality? What are the facts on the ground – are my products competitive, what is the quality like, where is the market going? Everything;
  3. What Options do I have? Write down everything all the possibilities and the consequences of each option;
  4. What is my Will – my intention. What is my plan? What will I do?

Other factors:

  • Who can help me? This is crucial;
  • What is in my control? How can I leverage it?
  • What is in the control of someone else? How can I influence them?
  • What is in control of the environment? What steps can I take to adjust to the environment.

This works with whatever your problem – how do I get more customers, how do I approach a buyer, how do I deal with a difficult employee, how do I handle my accounting and tax issues, should I introduce new products, should I drop any products – anything. And in everyday life as well. How do I handle a difficult child or spouse, what do I need to do to be a better husband? Write it down.

It might also be useful to get a colleague, a friend, a spouse, a parent or an adult child to brainstorm with you.

From your writings your plan will emerge, whatever your problem. With a plan you go from anxiety to action and all it takes is writing everything down. I guarantee it.

My friends, this is a simple and well-worn message but I can’t tell you how powerful it is. It’s like a tunnel boring machine that cuts through mountains. It is a powerful lamp in a dark room, showing you the way.

If you try it and it works for you, make it a habit. In one sense your life is defined by your habits. What you do every day is who you are. Your self-talk is habitual. Your tone of voice is habitual. Are you habitually negative? Do you habitually complain about the market, the crime, the government, your children, your parents, your wife, your husband, your luck? Do you habitually blame somebody or everybody for your situation, whatever it may be? Do you habitually eat a handful of chocolate raisins every afternoon and then complain about your weight? Do you habitually look for the good in people, do you habitually take responsibility for yourself, are you habitually kind, are you habitually punctual and neat and tidy, are you habitually positive?

Habits are unbelievably powerful, possibly the most powerful force in your life. It takes huge desire, tremendous courage and steely discipline to change your habits. Today I’m asking you to start a new habit – Write things down, make a plan and act on the plan.

I can’t guarantee that the plan will work, but a well thought out plan has a greater chance of succeeding than a de facto plan of haphazard flailing.

It is no understatement to say that writing things down in 1994 dramatically changed the course of my life. Can you think of one thing in your life you want to change? Can you decide with me now what that thing is? Can you decide when today you will write it down? Putting the ink on the page is a small act but will have a life changing impact. Are you willing to commit to going from anxiety to action?

After all, what have you got to lose?

  • Arnie Witkin is a member of the Biznews community who spends his time between Cape Town and London.
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