#67 (part of the South Africa series)

[The sign above features the standard symbol for South African speed bumps, plus an explanation of what they are supposed to do (calm traffic???). Speed bumps are rampant here, and we have almost lost a front axle on several poorly marked ones.]

SuperSport© is the South African equivalent of ESPN. We know this because it plays on big screens everywhere we go (except church, thankfully). We have seen ads claiming that this network covers golf, auto racing, track and field, and motorcycle+sidecar racing (surely the most niche sport since the World Wrestling Federation tried to compete with the NFL by launching the XFL, featuring mediocre players, cheerleaders dressed like strippers, and no fair catches on punts). Note that we have never actually seen any of these advertised sports being shown, because South Africans appear to be interested in only three sports, which are televised 24/7.  In the US these would be football, basketball, and baseball, but the South African Big Three are as follows:

  1. Soccer (known in every country outside the US as football). Soccer was the first team sport ever played, created in 47 BC when a group of hunters began kicking around a baboon skull after a successful outing. The concept of goals and scoring came centuries later, and added relatively little to the game. Soccer is simultaneously the world’s most popular and lowest scoring sport, with some matches running well over two hours in a feeble attempt to nudge the score above 0-0.
  2. Rugby. This direct descendent of soccer was born in 1442 when some of the stouter soccer players, tired of all the running (and lack of scoring), stepped off the field and began arguing. And drinking. The argument escalated, a fight broke out, and the soccer game ground to a halt, as the fans realized the fight was far more interesting than the game. The result was called Rugby. If you haven’t seen the movie Invictus, it will give you a decent understanding of the manly men who play this sport, as well as helping you distinguish between Nelson Mandella and his movie doppelgänger Morgan Freeman. On one of our final nights in Stellenbosch we ate in a restaurant where every other patron was avidly watching the national team play France (on SuperSport©), and we joined in, yelling whenever the locals yelled and sighing whenever they sighed. Then we left at halftime. Trivia fact: a touchdown in rugby is called a “try” and they only give you five points for it, probably because you didn’t try hard enough to get six.
  3. Cricket. As Americans debate whether Major League Baseball games should be allowed to last three hours, allow me to direct your attention to baseball’s distant weird cousin. If three hours is too long for you, try to wrap your mind around cricket matches that stretch on for three days, and you will get a glimpse into the Iron Man competition of bat-and-ball sports. In the longest match ever, England needed just 41 runs to win on the 9th day, but had to quit the match because their boat was preparing to leave South Africa. Seriously. Cricket features a pitcher (called a bowler), a batter (called a striker), a ball (called a rind-fruit), and a home plate made of sticks (called a wicket). I don’t know what they call “innings” and I can’t look because I’m off the grid right now, but several days back we saw a match (on SuperSport©) in which one team was leading the other 200-3 only half an inning into the game. Seriously. It’s like all the world’s soccer goals that almost went in were deposited in an account somewhere for cricket strikers to collect. It’s truly nuts. Also the ball is not really called a rind-fruit. You goofy American.

Here’s the thing about cricket: people actually go out to watch it, and apparently some of them stay till the bitter end. Most matches do end in a single day (the modern game lasts about 4 hours), but there may be no sport where your Rand (the local currency) goes further. I suspect that Americans would only tolerate the highlights (if that), but having seen tons of Cricket highlights (on SuperSport©) I can tell you that even the highlights get pretty dull. But for some locals it’s a fine way to spend a day (or a week), which brings me to the point of this post: life seems to move a little slower here and I think that’s probably really healthy.

Several days ago we were sitting in a cozy coffee shop (the latest stop on the Mark and Laura visit all the coffee shops in Africa tour). We drank coffee, ate breakfast, our dishes were cleared, and we were then free to sit there all day if we wished. The check would arrive only if we specifically asked for it. The day before, in another coffee shop (of course) we had been finished eating for some time, so we asked if we needed to give up our table for someone else to use. The server sort of rolled her eyes at us like that was the weirdest thing she had ever heard, then smiled like she was talking to two little children, shook her head no, and headed off. So we sat a while longer and enjoyed ourselves.

I think the pace of American life is partly a result of our culture and partly a result of choices we make (yes I know those choices are partly influenced by American culture, but that’s partly beyond the scope of this post). Am I the only one who sometimes feels guilty if I allow too many minutes of my day to flow past without me filling them with…something? I know I’m not the only one who takes a bit of pleasure in telling others how busy my schedule is, since I hear this fairly often from other people. I also know that:

  • a) as a nation, we give employees fewer vacation days each year than most others do
  • b) as employees, most of us don’t take all the vacation days we are given, in some cases because…
  • c) as colleagues, we sometimes shame others who have the nerve to take all their allotted days (it’s called ‘vacation shaming’ and it’s kind of pathetic). We may need to keep repeating this mantra to ourselves: “On their deathbed, nobody ever said, ‘I wish I had worked more’.” For most of us, this is an example of a daily choice we make that has long-term implications for our happiness.

While working with some of our students here on life design, I realized how my nightly video viewing had begun to eat up real chunks of my life, as my ‘just one episode’ of the latest binge-worthy show was adding up to 6-8 hours each week. There’s nothing wrong with kicking back to Netflix and chill, but eight hours is more than I spend on most anything except work, sleep, eating, hair care, sculpting marble, and answering fan mail. The issue here is not watching some shows, it’s when something (anything) expands into a huge self-imposed obligation that I don’t realize I have taken on, or when it makes my full life feel too full. Like old Jacob Marley, my chains are woven one subtle link at a time, usually without me realizing it.

The first step in living a happy, meaningful life is to take ownership of that life, and the quickest way to do this is with your weekly calendar. While there are libraries of books out there on how to cram a few more things into your schedule (they’re right next to the books on how to store more things in your closets and how to read more books), sooner or later you have to recognize that less is often more: doing less ‘stuff’ leaves time for more real living, and much, much more enjoyment of the things that you choose to do.

Our guide and host on this three-day stage of our trip is named Peter. He loves being outdoors and taking great care of people and his work lets him do a lot of each. We were lingering over dinner one evening after a long day’s hike and Peter said something that struck me: “People either understand silence, or they don’t.” He went on to discuss stressed out workers (and their children) who show up to relax for a few days but fail to really disconnect, missing some of the world’s most amazing scenery in order to “like” a few more Facebook posts or return a few emails. Peter lives in a world that offers solitude, and he is quite comfortable there. It has not been that long ago that we did not have 24/7 access to entertainment, news, and gossip, and I think we are still figuring out how to handle this red-hot thing without being burned by it.  The research on this is not promising.

Author and psychologist Sherry Turkle is convinced that our inability to just be is making us less happy and more stressed. While her focus is on kids and technology (she is convinced we are screwing up our kids by giving them early access to devices), her point is equally applicable to adults:

  • Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson noted that “children thrive when they are given time and stillness.” My own experience over the years with jobs that included lengthy periods of stillness was that I had some of my most profound thoughts during those times, but kids and adults today may not ever get this.
  • Turkle extends this: “When children grow up with time alone with their thoughts, they feel a certain ground under their feet. Their imaginations bring them comfort. If children always have something outside of themselves to respond to, they don’t build up this resource.” Instead, they build up anxiety.
  • “…it is only when we are alone with our thoughts — not reacting to external stimuli — that we engage that part of the brain’s basic infrastructure devoted to building up a sense of our stable autobiographical past.” In other words, we figure out who we are.

Our guide Peter was not just talking about literal silence; he was talking about stillness, about being comfortable being unengaged in order to just be. If your schedule is like mine, you may, ironically, have to schedule a block of time in your calendar in order for this to happen.

One final thing. While our culture pushes us to push ourselves, the decision to live your life with a bit more balance is completely yours. Ultimately it’s not about your nationality or your latitude, but about your choices and your attitude. And those are things you have complete control of.

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You could read Andy Hind’s full article on this (some of the insights in the last section are his), if I could find it. Trust me, it’s out there and it’s good, but I think I lost it somewhere off the grid. Sorry Andy.

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