Real Life South African examples of Refirement – Case study of John Perlman

As you approach your retirement years and think of the kinds of changes you would like to make in your new season of life, it helps to know there are others who have gone before you and succeeded. It helps to know there are others who are enjoying a second career, contributing to society and living a fulfilled life after 60. That there are those in your generation that have not faded quietly into the background to live out their 30+ retirement years relaxing, but rather have decided to make some changes and launch a second career in an area that they feel passionate about. It’s about finding out what you always wanted to do and pursuing this goal in a way that suits the lifestyle you aspire to in your middle-age years.

There are many exciting examples of people who have taken these bold steps and are enjoying a fulfilled second half of life continuing to contribute to society in a meaningful way, but on their own terms. One such example is John Perlman. Many of you may know him as SAfm’s morning radio host for more than 9 years. He is an example of someone who achieved success in his chosen field for over 20 years but as he approached middle-age was yearning to leave a legacy in the community around him.

Born in 1959, John grew up in Johannesburg and received a BA in History, South Sotho and Political studies from Wits University. He later did his honours in Development Studies and worked as an academic researcher. However, he found academic writing somewhat uncreative and wanted to tell real stories rather than write about theories so he did a higher diploma in journalism at the City University of London and joined the media. Between 1987 and 1998 he was involved in all aspects of journalism including print, radio and television and soccer commentating. Then in 1998 he took a full time job at SAfm as the morning radio announcer which he did for the next 9 years.

The change for John occurred in 2006, as the World Cup in South Africa drew closer he felt that for once he wanted to be involved in the event instead of reporting on what others were doing at the event. At this time he had started a programme at SAfm which supplied library books to school children in underprivileged areas. It was a basic idea where companies donated money for a set of books that was donated to the school to start their library. During this process John thoroughly enjoyed working with schools and children and the idea was sparked in him to start something similar around the World Cup. He felt that this world-class event being staged in our country needed to have spin-offs for the less fortunate who were never going to be able to see the games or benefit from the hype. He wanted to give underprivileged soccer players the chance to feel involved in the World Cup in some way.

In June 2006 John began exploring the idea of supplying football kit to children in underprivileged areas. He spoke to various people about the idea and as time passed it gathered momentum in his mind until by November of that year he was really excited about the project.

John left SAfm in February 2007, and so after more than 20 years in journalism he was free to pursue his new dream in the social sector – but he had no money to make it happen. In the interim he did some other work to keep him afloat, including facilitating conferences, public speaking, corporate training and freelance work, all the while he pursued his new venture on the side. By May of 2007 he had his first breakthrough when the mining group BHP Billiton donated R6,5-million to the project.

With a solid first investment in the idea, which Old Mutual matched, John needed to work at setting up a company with systems and processes in place to spend the money effectively – and so the Dreamfields Project was born. It was here that he got in contact with Graham Bath, an excellent administrator and business man who set up the company systems.

To date, the operation employs 5 people in its Joburg office and has an additional 2 people in its Cape Town team. The organisation has spent more than R14-million in communities, and hopes to increase this to R20-million by the end of 2010. The project uses corporate funding to provide soccer kit to teams of 15 children; to stage soccer tournaments in underprivileged areas, and to develop and upgrade sports fields.

While 2010 is the big soccer year with the World Cup around the corner, looking beyond that John hopes to secure funding for the next 3 years and to continue with the work they are doing in underprivileged areas. He also hopes to expand their ad-hoc soccer tournaments into weekly soccer leagues for schools to participate in. The project is also looking at developing a low-cost, low-maintenance model for upgrading soccer fields.
Speaking about the transition from his first career in journalism to this new venture John has some advice to share with others. He realises that it might have been easier for him to take this plunge as he does not have any children of his own and did not have the added financial responsibilities of university fees or other family commitments.

Regarding the project itself, John believes that it succeeded because of its simplicity. He advises others not to make their ideas too complicated and try to solve too many problems at once. Rather make a small start and get something going instead of developing an enormous idea that is too daunting to implement. Getting something started while it is small also gives you the opportunity to make your mistakes early on when the consequences are not too disastrous. He adds that often a big profitable plan leads to many hangers-on all wanting a piece of the action, while having a small simple and do-able plan is surrounded only by those who are committed to making it happen.

John admits that he did get discouraged along the way when things did not seem to work out, but at this time he was encouraged by this quote from a mountaineering book authored by W.H Murray about the first Scottish expedition to the Himalayas:
“… but when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money‚Äî booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”

John also advises people to get take a balanced view of the advice they receive from others. While many people may want to help and give you advice, be very clear about what you are trying to do and only collaborate with others where you can see a clear link in what you both want to achieve.

On the topic of moving from the corporate to the social sectors, John says that he has had to become more humble as the answers in the social sector are not all black and white, but that it is a lot more complex than that. Also measuring success is very relative when working in the social sector, so while Dreamfields has distributed 930 bags of soccer kit and upgraded 10 soccer fields, how they measure success is not that straight forward.

John advises anyone embarking on a new venture to look for champions to help you achieve your goal. These people might not be the most articulate or outspoken individuals but they get things done and have staying power when things don’t always go smoothly.
Overall, John describes his new adventure as a huge curve of learning and discovery, but he is incredibly blessed to be a part of the team that is making 2010 soccer memorable for young South African players from disadvantaged backgrounds.