Athol Williams | Poet, Founder of Read to Rise & Social Philosopher

Athol Williams came from humble beginnings in Mitchells Plain, Cape Town, and has then lived in Johannesburg, Boston and London. He currently splits his time between Oxford and Cape Town. Athol Williams has published 3 collections of poems and 2 children’s books. He also has a deep passion for reading and education. He is pioneering efforts to use his award-winning poetry to guide thinking in social development and philosophy. He recognizes the vital role education plays in the pursuit of freedom and human development, hence his involvement in social change through education. He is the co-founder of Read to Rise, an NGO that promotes youth literacy. Read to Rise promotes youth literacy in under-resourced communities of South Africa. They seek to improve access to age-appropriate books for children in Grade 2 and Grade 3.


My Definition Of Success | For the first twenty four years of my life everything around me was designed to brainwash me into believing that I was a person destined for mediocrity.  And under Apartheid, everything was designed to ensure that mediocrity was all I would ever achieve.  Success for me meant breaking out of the prison of mediocrity that I had been born into.  This required that I acknowledge that I am someone of far greater worth than I was led to believe, undo the brainwashing and free my mind, and secondly that I work relentlessly to physically break out of the chains.  I knew that education would be my ticket to freedom.  Books would set me free.  But I grew up at a time of major political unrest in the country which severely interrupted my schooling.


Athol-Williams-1I Am Driven By | My personal mission is “by my words and deeds to enable and inspire others to thrive.” This mission guides all the work I do whether it is community development, advising government or corporations or writing poetry or children’s books.  I am driven by personal excellence and by inspiring others to live meaningful lives.  I am disturbed by inequality and hopelessness, and have set out to explore, in my academic and professional work, institutional arrangements that might sustainably make our society for equitable and harmonious.


My Highlights | I am proud of my academic achievements (degrees from Oxford (pending), Harvard, LSE, LBS, MIT and Wits) especially given where I started.  MIT in particular was a major accomplishment because I went to the US in 1994 knowing no-one, without any money to pay for my studies and without a place to live.  I squatted on campus and stressfully ignored the mounting bills, until I convinced the university to create a scholarship for me.
I am proud of what my team and I have achieved at Read to Rise, the literacy NGO that my wife, Taryn, and I founded in 2013.  We have already distributed 30,000 new books to Grade 2s and 3s in disadvantaged communities.
Professionally I have served in incredibly rewarding roles, including Partner at Bain & Company, a leading global strategy consultancy and Strategy Director of Old Mutual.  Probably the most rewarding has been to have founded the longest running niche South African strategy consulting firm, Taurus Associates.
I feel blessed to have had 3 books of poetry published as well as 2 children’s books; and to have been awarded the 2015 Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award – a wonderful recognition of my poetry, a craft that I have been developing for over 20 years.


Athol-Williams-3The Difference Between Good And Great | The difference between great and good is someone’s willingness to accept the risk of failing, and then getting up again when they fail.  When we play it safe we are unlikely to fail but also unlikely to be great.  It is only when we push beyond boundaries and test our limits that we open ourselves to the possibility of greatness but this comes with the risk of failure, something we need to accept if we are pursuing greatness or excellence.  The most important skill we can learn is to silence the negative voices in our heads.  I have incomplete degrees, vast numbers of rejection letters from publishers and failed companies, so have failed many times.  Greatness comes when you are prepared to risk falling, and when you do fall, are able to get up and keep going.


A Key Talent | In all of my work, the ability to synthesise vast amounts of information down to their critical elements and then propose a few action steps, has been a key success factor.  We are inundated with information these days, just being able to find information and even having lots of facts in your head will not get you anywhere.  Success is driven by action and we can only know what the best actions are if we are about to simplify and focus our thinking.  This requires the ability to synthesise.  The most successful people are able to do this – to look at lots of complexity and be able to find the most important elements and derive key actions from them.  I always suggest that in every situation, seek out the three most important issues and focus on the two or three actions that are required.  This also helps with communicating ideas and is so critical if you’re trying to get buy-in and to get others to take action.


The Characteristics Of Success | I’ve developed the concept called Path of Opportunity which says we cannot know exactly where success lies but we can know its general direction.  Knowing the general direction, you can then set out on the path in that direction.  It is an uncertain path, with bends and dips and rises, but at least you will know that you are heading in the right direction and most of all, you are taking action which gives your life far more meaning than just standing still.  For example, if you want to be a famous movie star then perhaps your path of opportunity should lead you to Hollywood.  This means that even if you have to work in a grocery store in Hollywood, at least you will know that you are in the right place, moving in the right direction.  In 2012 I started a Masters degree at Harvard University which required that I leave home and the things that I loved doing in order to go to the US, but I had a very strong sense that being at Harvard was my path of opportunity.  That year turned out to be transformational – the insights that I gained there, have given me clarity about the work I want to do.  It is extremely liberating to live by this philosophy because I don’t have to know all the answers up front.  Many of us spend so much time agonising about the future but we can never have certainty.  Path of opportunity says – know what you want, have the courage to pick a direction and then take small steps in that direction.  You then adjust as you go along.  You are far better placed to make informed decisions about your future after you’ve taken a few steps than from the position where you started.


Athol-Williams-2-v2Lessons I Have Learnt | We live in a world that places cognitive ability above emotional and spiritual instinct.  We are trained to think our way through life.  I have taken countless courses in decision-making, logic, statistics and game theory, learning tools that help us think.  Yet the best decisions that I have made have been when I have relied on my intuition – what feels right, what is the sense that I am getting.  I have learned that intuition gives us better answers than rational thinking.  Once I’ve listened to my intuition, I then apply the rational tools I’ve learned. So I don’t abandon thinking, I employ it to serve and refine my intuition.  People often talk about head versus heart, in my view we need both but my order is, heart first then head.


Dealing With Doubt | I face self-doubt all the time.  I have changed countries, careers and academic disciplines so many times, each time stretching myself further and further.  My self-doubt often manifests in me thinking that I have taken too big a leap.  Going from business to studying political philosophy for example was a massive stretch and initially I doubted whether I would succeed and seriously thought that I had taken too big a leap.  But I deal with this doubt or fear by reminding myself why I am in the situation and what has brought me there.  Following the path of opportunity approach tells me that I am following the best path and that I am in the right place – this frees me from worry and frees me to live in the moment of where I am.  So this way I could just enjoy the political philosophy studies and if I failed then so be it, at least I knew I was doing what I should have been doing, I was in the right place.  As it turned out, at LSE for example, I earned a Distinction for my dissertation in political philosophy and was awarded the prize for the best dissertation even though I had no prior philosophy training.


Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | I read widely.  I read poetry, philosophy and modern literature to find inspiration especially about the infinity of the human spirit and the power that we have within us.  Movies like the Rocky series have always been inspiring because the underdog overcomes his challenges and wins.  I see a bit of myself reflected in those movies.  I have always been a fan of Bruce Springsteen’s music both for the social commentary and some of the personal uplifting lyrics (I have seen him live in concert 5 times) but my most inspiring song is by British singer Labi Siffre, Something Inside So Strong which kept me going through all my difficult years of struggling through Apartheid.  I still listen to this song every week.


I Am Inspired By | My two role models are Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, not because they were political leaders but because they combined deep belief in human freedom and dignity, with action.  They were action-orientated philosophers, that is, deep thinkers who had developed profound ideas of a better society and were willing to act to bring their ideas to reality.  By their philosophies and actions they were able to enable and inspire millions of people to rise above their circumstances and thrive.  This is what I hope to achieve with my remaining years.