Roald Dahl, the complicated and beloved author of indelible children’s classics such as Matilda and Fantastic Mr. Fox, would have turned 100 this year. Dahl is best remembered for his keen understanding of the vibrant inner lives of kids. His protagonists were brave and resourceful — creative problem solvers who went on simultaneously terrifying and enchanting adventures.
Dahl lost his dad and sister when he was very young and spent his formative years at austere boarding schools. Before he began his celebrated writing career, he was a pilot for the Royal Air Force during World War II. After a nearly fatal crash, Dahl worked in espionage on behalf of the British government.
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In the 1960s, Dahl published some of what would become his most famous books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach, but the decade was a painful one for him. His 4-month-old son Theo was in a traffic accident that left him with brain damage. Dahl’s 7-year-old daughter Olivia died after contracting measles, and a few years later, his wife, the famous actress Patricia Neal, had a series of strokes.
In an effort to help Theo, the storyteller co-developed a medical valve to prevent fluid from building up in the brain. Caring for Patricia led him to pen a guide to help for stroke patients through their recovery. Though his life was marked by tragedy, Dahl harnessed his circumstances to invent ways to connect with and aid others. His written work reflected this approach to life.
Even if you aren’t outsmarting witches, befriending giants or taking down a terrible authority figure with telekinesis, you can derive inspiration from Dahl’s words.
1. Hold yourself accountable.
In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Dahl had some advice for aspiring writers. “You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work or to tick you off if you start slacking.” When you are starting a new venture — especially at the very beginning, before your employees or investors enter the picture — it’s up to you to realize your vision. No one else is going to do it for you.
2. Go off the beaten track.
In The Minpins, Dahl wrote, “The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” And the Old-Green-Grasshopper memorably told James, “There are a whole lot of things in this world of ours you haven’t started wondering about yet.” Don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek out new solutions to old problems.
3. Take the plunge.
“Bunkum and tummyrot! You’ll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that. Would Columbus have discovered America if he’d said ‘What if I sink on the way over? What if I meet pirates? What if I never come back?’ He wouldn’t even have started.” This was one of Willy Wonka’s spirited exhortations in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Like most things out of the candy maker’s mouth, it’s over the top and slightly incorrect, but he’s got a point. When you’re launching a company, don’t let doubts plague you. Have confidence in the idea that you want to pursue.
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4. Understand the power of one.
It’s sometimes easy to get bogged down in logistics and forget why you started something in the first place. As Matilda said, “Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.” Don’t forget that your thoughts and actions could change things for the better if you keep at it.
5. Don’t be afraid to fail.
Dahl wrote in memoir of wartime, Going Solo, “a life is made up of a great number of small incidents and a small number of great ones.” So if something great comes your way, take the time to appreciate it. But if you make a mistake, remember that it isn’t the first one and won’t be the last. In the words of Danny, the Champion of the World, “most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death. They wouldn’t be exciting if they didn’t.”