William was born in Malawi, Africa. He lived in a village of about ten houses that were painted white and made of mud bricks. Their roofs were made from long grasses they collected from nearby swamps. For most of William’s life, his village didn’t have electricity – just oil lamps that spewed smoke and coated their lungs with soot. His family, like others in the village, were poor farmers who grew mostly corn.
Unlike most kids in rich countries, William had no toys to play with. That was a good thing because it forced him to use the power of his imagination. He and his friends collected empty cardboard boxes which they would wash and use to build toy trucks. They built larger wagons, like go-carts, using thick tree branches to build the frame and giant sweet potatoes for wheels. The wheel axles were made of poles carved from a blue-gum tree. They also loved to play soccer but had no money to buy real soccer balls, so they made their own with plastic shopping bags which they wadded together and tied with rope.
I think kids are better off without flashy, fancy, and noisy toys. If I were still young and was writing a letter to Santa, I’d ask him for just five things:
a cardboard box plus
a cardboard tube and
William was the only boy among six girls in his family. Since he was very small and had no older brother to protect him, he says he was often bullied in school. One day, a tall and muscular boy by the name of Limbikani waited for William and his best friend, Gilbert, on their way to school. Limbikani started teasing them and, at one point, pressed his strong chest against Gilbert’s face calling him “monkey boy” just like Hideyoshi was teased. He then grabbed both William and Gilbert by the back of their shirts and dangled them in the air like two helpless puppies. Then he stole their lunch. This happened again and again.
William was fed up. He had been told about a magic potion made from the bones of leopards and lions which would make him strong, so he decided to try it just like some guys nowadays go the gym thinking that will make them strong. William so much wanted to believe in this magic that 4 days after he used it, he started feeling stronger. “I flexed my muscles,” he says, “and they felt as firm as tree trunks. My hands, squeezed into fists, were as solid as two bricks.”
One afternoon, his uncle took him to a soccer game and William scanned the crowd looking for the strongest boy with whom to pick a fight. When he found him, William walked up to him and stomped on his bare foot. They started fighting. William says he unleashed a flurry of punches that were so fast and terrifying that his arms blurred before his eyes. “My iron fists moved so furiously,” he says, “that I didn’t even feel them smashing his face.”
That’s because they didn’t.
William had barely hit him.
They boy was still standing, and “worse!” William says, “he was laughing at me.” Pretty soon, William was on the ground, knocked out by several hard punches to his eye. By the time his uncle raced over and rescued him, he was crying and covered in dust.
“What are you doing?” his uncle said. “You know better than to fight. That boy is twice your size.”
The magic potion hadn’t worked at all.
People believe in the strangest things, and often never bother to check the facts to confirm if something is true or not. And even when they’re shown something is not true, they still refuse to believe it. They press their hands against their ears and make silly sounds to avoid hearing the truth…lah lah lah lah
About 400 years ago, a scientist and astronomer by the name of Galileo proved that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around as many believed. Galileo was skeptical: he refused to believe in something he had not figured out for himself. His discovery made some people angry, so they put him in jail. They acted as if science were something one can choose to believe or not, instead of what it really is: something to be understood.
Notice the difference between these two words: discovery and belief. Discovery means testing something to see if it’s real or true. Belief is to accept something without bothering to figure out if it’s true or not.
These days, I often feel like we’re back in Galileo’s time. There are way too many people refusing to listen to new ideas or discussing anything that goes against what they believe… lah lah lah lah
It’s hard to give up on something we believe in, especially if we’ve believed it for a long time, so when someone shows us proof to the contrary, it feels like an earthquake shaking the ground on which we had been standing. It’s very uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary if you want to learn and grow.
As you grow up, many people will want to make you believe all kinds of stuff. When doing so, they’ll often use this phrase: “trust me, I know better.” The best thing you can do at that moment is ask them how they got to know what they say they know. Better figure things out for yourself, unless you want to end up covered in dust and with a black eye like William.
After the fight, Williams says he began to look at the world in a different way. “I saw it as one explained by fact and reason, rather than hocus-pocus,” he says.
The year William turned 13, he became aware that things in him were changing – not only his body, but also his interests. Like you, William was growing up.
He and his best friend Gilbert began to take apart old radios to see what was inside and figure out how they worked. For a long time, William had been fascinated by the sounds coming out of a radio and wanted to know how they got there. I still don’t know how most stuff works, do you?
“Why are these wires different colors?” “Where do they all go?” The boys had many questions but no answers, so William set out to find them himself. Before long, people were bringing their broken radios and asking William and Gilbert to fix them.
At that point, William didn’t know much about science, or that doing science could be a job. But he was becoming more and more curious about how things worked. For example, he wanted to know how gasoline makes car engines work, so he began stopping truck drivers to ask them: “What makes this truck move? How does it work?” But no one could tell him. It seemed to William that people in his village were happy enjoying their cars and radios without knowing how they worked, but not him. “I was filled with the desire to understand,” he says, “and the questions never stopped coming. If finding these answers was the job of a scientist, then I wanted to become one.”
Remember the guy I mentioned at the beginning of this book… Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of all times? He’s the one who said he had no special talent but was only passionately curious, like William.
I don’t know what makes people stop using the Life Force of Curiosity as they grow older. They stop asking questions like “What if? or “I wonder…” or “If only…” Most of our world’s greatest inventions have come about precisely because someone asked these questions. Sometimes these discoveries can even save lives as William was about to prove.
When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought which meant crops died. Within five months, all Malawians began to starve to death. William’s family ate only one meal a day. Unable to feed his dog, Khamba, William took him out to the field one day, tied them to a tree, and left them there to die. There was nothing else he could do.
With little money, William’s father could no longer pay for William’s education so he had to drop out of school.
“It was a future I could not accept,” William says.
Now imagine yourself in a similar situation: living in a cramped, mud-and-brick hut with your parents and six sisters, no electricity, only able to eat once a day; you’re hungry all the time and can’t go to school anymore because your parents can’t afford it. Imagine further that you’ve never used a computer before, know nothing about the Internet, and barely speak English.
This is what William was up against when he was fourteen years old.
But rather than whining about it or complaining that the world was unfair and owed him a better life, or looking for an easy way out, William imagined a better future for himself, his family, and his people, and decided to do something about it.
Remember this for the rest of your life: The best way to complain is to improve.
First, William went to the library.
I could talk all day long about why you should read and learn, but I’ll let William’s story convince you of why it’s such a good idea. I’ll say one thing though - even though you’re probably too young to be thinking about girls, remember this: girls really dig boys who read! Trust me, I know.
Because he couldn’t go to class, William spent lots of time playing board games with his other friends whose parents could not afford sending them to school anymore. I guess you can say it was their version of today’s video games.
“But these games weren’t enough to keep my mind stimulated,” William says. “I needed a better hobby. Perhaps reading would keep my brain from going mushy.”
“Come to borrow some books?” the librarian asked William when he entered the small, musty room.
It was the first time he had ever set foot inside a library.
He nodded, then asked, “How do I do it?”
William spent that first morning sitting on the floor, flipping through pages and marveling at the pictures. He says that for the first time in his life, he experienced what it felt like to escape without going anywhere.
Wanting to catch up, he checked out the same books his friends were studying at school. Back home, he fashioned a hammock from empty flour sacks and strung it between two trees. From then on, he spent his mornings at the library, and the warm afternoons reading in his hammock under shade.
One Saturday, Gilbert met him at the library just to look at books for fun. The first book William spotted was the 'Integrated Science' textbook used by the older high school students. Turning the pages, he saw a photo of a large waterfall located in southern Malawi where the country’s electrical company operated a hydro plant. This is basically a machine that produces electricity using falling or flowing water to turn the blades of a turbine which spins a generator.
“Well,” he told Gilbert, “this sounds exactly like a bicycle dynamo. It lights a bulb by also turning a wheel.”
Dynamos are like small metal bottles with a grooved spinning cap that attach to the wheel of a bicycle. William had seen them around the village before but didn’t know what they were for until he saw his father’s friend riding-up to their house on a bicycle with its headlamp shining. As soon as he stopped, the light turned off. It was the dynamo that created electricity to power the lamp.
The photo in the book made William think about the swamps behind his house which also created a waterfall during the rainy season.
“What if I put a dynamo underneath it?” William asked Gilbert. “The falling water could do the spinning and produce electricity! We could listen to the radio whenever we wanted.”
There’s that enchanted question again: “What if…?” It’s like a magic carpet coming to life as soon as you cast the spell, ready to take you anywhere you want to go. No matter how old you get, never stop asking yourself “What if…?” Don’t ever stop imagining a better world.
Be like Dr. Goodenough!
(I’m not making his name up, trust me).
At 94, Dr. Goodenough came up with a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles forever. Imagine that! Greta Thunberg will be very happy..
As soon as William hopped on the magic carpet of his imagination, he flew into a wall. Splat!
Putting a dynamo under the waterfall would be easy. The problem was running wires all the way to his house to power the lights and radio. That would cost a fortune. And what about during the dry season when there is no waterfall?
These are the rocks – or obstacles – I told you about before which get in the way of what we want to accomplish. William had to choose between giving up, or being flexible, like water or a palm tree, and look for a way around the obstacle.
“I guess I’ll have to research this a little more,” he thought.
William kept reading, but because his English was so poor, he struggled with many words, so went to look for a dictionary on a bottom shelf of the library. When he squatted to grab it, he noticed a book he’d never seen before. It was pushed deep into the shelf and hidden. It was a textbook called Using Energy.
William says this book changed his life.
The cover of the book showed a long row of windmills. William had no idea what a windmill was. All he saw were tall white towers with three blades spinning like a fan.
He called Gilbert over and pointed at the picture. “Don’t these look like the pinwheels we used to make?”
“Yah,” Gilbert said. “But these things are giant. What are they for?”
“Let’s find out.” William said, and began to read:
Energy is all around you every day. Sometimes energy needs to be converted to another form before it is useful to us. How can we convert forms of energy?
Imagine that hostile forces have invaded your town. If you needed a hero to save the day, it’s unlikely you would go to the nearest university and drag a scientist to the battlefront. Yet, according to legend, it was not a general who saved the Greek city of Syracuse when the Roman fleet attacked it in 214 B.C.”
It was a scientist.
The book went on to explain how a Greek inventor called Archimedes used his ‘Death Ray’ – basically a bunch of mirrors – to reflect the sun onto the enemy ships until, one by one, they caught fire and sank. It was an example of how you can use the sun to produce energy. If you want to test this out, go outside on a super sunny day armed with a magnifying glass and look for a bunch of dry leaves. Hold your ‘Death Ray’ about a foot between the sun and the leaves and watch them burn. Just try no to set your neighborhood on fire.
Just like with the sun, windmills could also be used to generate power.
It all snapped together for William.
If the wind spins the blades of a windmill, he thought, and the dynamo works by turning the pedals of a bike, these two things could work together! If I can somehow get the wind to spin the blade on a windmill and rotate the magnets in a dynamo, I can create electricity and power a lightbulb. All I need is a windmill and I could have lights! No more smoky lanterns in my house. I could stay awake and read instead of going to bed at seven. But most important, a windmill could also pump water. With his village and the rest of the country still starving to death, a water pump could save lives by irrigating crops.
“Gilbert!” William exclaimed. “I’m going to build a windmill!”
William had never tried anything like it before, but he decided to step out of his comfort zone and go on his hero’s journey.
Gilbert smiled. “When do we start?”
“We start today.”
For the next month, William woke up early and went to a scrapyard to find pieces for his windmill. Now that he had a purpose and a plan, he began to find exactly what he needed. “Where others see garbage, I see opportunity,” he says. When he wasn’t at the scrapyard, he hung out at the library or sat in his hammock and read. His imagination was constantly at work.
People in his village thought he was crazy. His room was full of junk from the scrapyard. “What’s wrong with you?” his mother asked. “Your friends don’t behave this way. Look at this room! It looks like a madman’s room. Only madmen collect garbage.”
William proved them wrong.
He persisted, despite the many things that went wrong, and finally brought his windmill to life.
The rest of William’s story is just as amazing, but, rather than telling it now, I suggest you go to your public library and check-out the book he wrote. It’s a wonderful read.
That, dear boy, is how heroes start their journeys.
For eleven-year old Ruby Cate Chitsey from Arkansas, it was boredom.
For fifteen-year old Greta, it was anger.
For William, it was hunger.
For nine-year old Gabrielle Vaughn from Kansas City, MO, it started when she heard about a little girl who was feeling lonely at her school. This bothered Gabrielle very much and made her ask herself this question: “How would I feel if I was in that position?”
Gabrielle stepped into the little girl’s shoes and felt her sadness. “If you don’t want to feel that way,’ she says, “you need to do something about it.”
And she did.
Gabrielle heard about the ‘Buddy Bench’ which helps bring kids together and feel more included, and worked with her teachers to get her school’s playground a bench of its own.
“It’s not just a regular, old bench where you sit down and eat your lunch,” Gabrielle says. “It’s a bench where you can make friends.”
The idea is quite simple: when a child sits alone on the bench, that’s when a classmate goes ask him to play.
Two thousand buddy benches have popped-up across the country, many of them placed in schools by students like Gabrielle. Written on the bench she helped install at her school is this message: “A friend is only a seat away.”
“Everybody deserves to have a friend!” says Gabrielle.
So, my boy…
Are you bored like Ruby?
Great! Brilliant, marvelous, excellent, wonderful, amazing! Do something about it! Use your boredom to spark your curiosity and go on your own hero’s journey.
Are you angry like Greta?
Stupendous, magnificent, outstanding! Harness your anger and turn it into fuel! Start by being the change you want to see in the world and then get to work on making a difference.
Is your brain turning mushy from too much gaming like William?
Not so good.
Run to the library! Perhaps, stuck deep in one the shelves, you too will find a book that will change your life. In part of William’s story, he says he was worried he would end like so many other boys who had also dropped out of school and wasted their lives “grooving” with no plans for the future.
Don’t you “groove” – act!
Maybe there is something that really bugs you like it did Gabrielle?
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Do something about it! Pay attention to the world. Look around you. You will find plenty of good work that needs to be done, like old people who are lonely, climate change, bullied or excluded classmates, littered beaches, beautiful life-forms becoming extinct, the homeless and hungry in your neighborhood… so much need.
Find the need in the world you most care about and you will have found your dragon.
Next, figure out what talents or skills you possess which can help. Those are your weapons.
Then, make a plan, like William did for his windmill. That’s your map. You’ll need it to know where you are going and why. A Roman philosopher by the name of Seneca said that if you don’t know to which port you’re sailing, no wind is favorable.
Then make another plan… plan B, just in case your magic wand fails, your first windmill doesn’t work, your lightsaber doesn’t turn on when you most need it, or your message isn’t heard in 24 hours like Benjamin’s Sea-Turtle letter. Stuff happens. Bee prepared. Be always one step ahead and nothing will catch you by surprise.
But don’t play it too safe. Ships are safe at harbor but that is not what ships are made for. Don’t wait for the perfect conditions to go on your hero’s journey. Don’t think you need to first have your ship fully loaded before sailing. Just go! Work with the stuff you have, like William, and figure it out on the way.
Some people will tell you that the world is a dangerous place so you better stay put. I call bullpoop, rubbish, hogwash! They just watch too much news which reports only the bad stuff. It’s like if a young zebra watched National Geographic all day showing lions pouncing on startled gazelles, crocodiles munching on thirsty giraffes, and hyenas with fire-red eyes and gleaming sharp teeth, circling around a tired, old wildebeest... of course the young zebra would think the world is a dangerous place and never leave home.
But the world is also not Disneyland where rich, pretty princesses fall in love with ugly, poor hunchbacks. Liars don’t always get caught by their growing noses like Pinocchio. The glass slipper often doesn’t fit. Dreams don’t always come true no matter how many stars we wish upon. Happy ever after doesn’t exist.
Neither dangerous nor Disneyland. Just an amazing world full of adventure and lots of stuff that needs heroes to set right.
Soon, I will train you on the Life Forces you’ll need. Then, you’ll be ready to move out of your ordinary world and onto your hero’s journey to slay some dragons!
As for me, the book you’re reading is my hero’s journey.
It started when I read about a man who committed horrible atrocities in Germany during World War II. His name was Reinhard Heydrich.
What Reinhard did, made me mad, but, like Greta, I harnessed my anger and decided to learn more about Reinhard, especially about his childhood. I suspected he had been hurt as a boy, and, just like the bullies at your school and mine, I assumed no one helped Reinhard deal with his suffering so he made other people suffer.
I was right.
As a boy, Reinhard was bullied at school, teased about his very high pitched voice and for being a Catholic. He was beaten up by bigger boys and tormented with anti-Jewish insults because it was rumored that his family had Jewish ancestors. At home, Reinhard’s mother believed in the value of harsh discipline and frequent lashings. As a result, he was a withdrawn, sullen, and unhappy boy. At age 18, he became a cadet in the German Navy. Once again, he was teased. By then, Reinhard was over six feet tall - a gangly, awkward young man who still had a high, almost falsetto voice. The other cadets took delight in calling him "Billy Goat" because of his bleating laugh.
Instead of turning his anger towards the bullies, Reinhard became a bully himself and unleashed his anger on the people which were being used by the bullies to tease him. He turned his anger toward the Jews.
I had read other stories of atrocities committed by men who had been bullied or humiliated when they were boys. Reinhard’s story finally pushed me to write this book. That was my dragon! I felt there was a need in our world to help boys, like you, mature into good men. Into valiant warriors who will write better stories for our world and planet. I want to help boys grow into bees instead of locusts.
Bees pollinate and help things grow. Locusts destroy.
The Locusts are my dragons. Writing is my talent. My pen is my weapon. And, as someone once said, “the pen is mightier than the sword!”
All the hero journeys you've read so far have one thing in common; what ancient Greeks called agape, or love at its most awesome expression. They were focused on a cause greater than themselves.
Ruby wishes to bring smiles and hope to seniors. Gabrielle wants to help kids who are being excluded. William wanted to save his family and village. Benjamin loves sea turtles. Alex wanted to help her doctors cure other cancer patients before she died. Greta loves the Earth. Gandhi wanted to free his people. Mine is wanting to help boys grow into bees and write better stories for the world.
Without agape there is no hero’s journey. If you really want to be a photographer, for example, but you only want to do so because you believe it will make you lots of money or because you’ll be able to travel the world, I’m sorry to say you will not be heroic. Real artists don’t create just to satisfy themselves. They do so because they are in love with the world and want others to feel what they feel when doing their art. Some wish to capture the beauty that is quickly disappearing by the increasing encroachment of man.
Many people spend way too much time trying to discover the meaning of life. They ask questions like why am I here? and what’s the purpose of life? The famous painter Pablo Picasso had a simple answer. He said that the meaning of life is to find your unique talent… your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.
Now, it's time to tell you about the hardest battle you’ll ever have to fight.
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