Following my speech to its graduates last year, the Australian National University’s College of Business and Economics gave me the honour of addressing its Prize and Scholarship winners at a recent ceremony. As I prepared my talk, I thought about my hopes and concerns for our students. The modern world offers them almost limitless possibilities. At the same time, will an excessively vocational and commercial focus reduce both their personal and societal achievements? Do they have the courage to study for love and know that this can pay more dividends than just studying for money? Here are my thoughts – I would love to hear yours.
Speech to ANU College of Business and Economics Prize and Scholarship Ceremony 24 May 2012
Robert Kennedy said “All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don’t. And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity. “
In adding my warm congratulations to all of the winners today, it seems to me that the students being honoured here have more ability and potential to see opportunities in challenges. And this gives you more choices and potential to achieve things that are meaningful both personally and to the world.
But how do you make the most of this? From the research that I have done for my latest book, co-authored with Andrew Ford, How Much Is Enough?, and my personal experience, I want to share with you two key ideas that I think can make a difference.
First is about loving what you are doing and developing a sense of meaning and purpose to guide your choices. If you like, to have a sense of soul.
Second, is ensuring that your education has enough breadth to develop the creative elements of your brain, not just the analytical.
Upfront I want to alert you to two key conclusions. You are in fact more likely to make money, if your main focus in life is not about money. And money aside, you are more likely to emerge as a leader and make a difference in whatever field you choose, if the scope of your studies is broad, rather than narrow.
Let me bring this to life by sharing a bit of my experience. My family circumstances were such that I worked a 15-20 hour week in supermarkets from Year 10 in school and through my undergraduate years. Frankly, I yearned to be rich. But strangely, I never worried too much about employment in picking my courses. I was fortunate to discover early that I had a love of Economics, but I also had a general love of learning and curiosity about everything in the world. So I enrolled in this great course that the ANU offered combining Economics and Asian Studies degrees, majoring in Economics, Economic History, Southeast Asian Studies and Indonesian.
From an employment perspective, some might regard say, Accounting and Chinese to be more useful than Economic History and Indonesian. Now while these would have been fine choices, I let what I enjoyed learning, guide my choices. I also dropped into various classes which interested me, including Psychology. Even though I never enrolled in the course, I ended up doing much of the reading for Psychology 101.
Because I absolutely loved every subject I was studying, I did pretty well ending up with a first class honours degree. And this led to me landing a job in one of the research schools here, working on a project on Indonesian economic development. The job required both a strong background in economics, which I had along with lots of other people, but also required a knowledge of Indonesia and its language – well that helped to eliminate most of my competition. And the funny thing is that the job was better paying than joining Treasury as a graduate.
I really enjoyed what I was doing and could see how I could make a difference. And when you feel like that, you work with soul, and in turn this inspires others to help you, leading to some rich learning experiences. It meant that I was helped by some of the finest economists in this country, including people like Ross Garnaut and Fred Gruen, father of one of the Deputy Secretaries of the Treasury, David Gruen, who is here today and continuing a great family tradition. And some unlikely people took me under their wing.
One of the most extraordinary of these was Ann Dunham Sutoro, who gave me a home during my field trips to Indonesia. Ann was a white woman, born in Kansas, who had been twice married, first to an African and then to an Indonesian man and twice divorced. She was doing terrific practical work with the Ford Foundation to aid economic development, while she juggled the responsibilities of being a single mother and also doing a PhD thesis on the Indonesian blacksmith industry. She guided me with my field work, helping me get my hands dirty in going out and understanding the life of Indonesian farm workers and blacksmiths, so I had a practical understanding of what economic development was about. She was a woman with a lot of soul who inspired me.
Does her name sound familiar? Well 4 years ago, I discovered that she was the mother of Barack Obama. Sadly she died 10 years before his historic inauguration and I have yet to get an invitation to the White House, mainly because I never met her son. But you will appreciate that she was a pretty amazing mentor for a young person to have (see my separate story about this remarkable woman)
My more general point is that these amazing people helped me because they knew I was inspired by my work and wanted to help me make a difference to the world. Do you think I have would have had the same response if they felt that I was leading a life without passion and that the main focus of my studies was only to make money?
That said, I was becoming aware of the need to also secure myself financially and fortunately the rich array of experiences I had gave me the confidence, perhaps foolishly, to decide to launch my own business at the age of 24. A business called ipac securities that aimed to apply leading edge research that I had been exposed to at the ANU in globalisation, deregulation and demographic change, to revolutionise the wealth management industry.
Now I have a question for you: imagine that I approached you when I was 24, with some wild ideas and equally wild hair, on building a business competing with the giants in financial services.
I had no experience in the industry, all of 3 years work experience, mostly in Indonesian Economic Development and no business background of any sort. Oh, and by the way, I was asking you to give up your job, invest your life savings in the business and not receive any salary for a year.
Most people I spoke to on the campus very sensibly said no to my offer. But I did find four other similarly naïve, idealistic lunatics willing to join forces with me and we pooled our life savings, which amounted to around $20,000 each. Gosh we were naïve.
But here’s the amazing thing. Over the next 20 years, we built a mini empire with businesses in Australia, NZ, Ireland, South Africa and Taiwan. And even though we had to dilute our equity a lot, by bringing in outside shareholders, the size of the pie that we created was large. The value of these businesses when they were sold, was many hundreds of millions of dollars. In fact the companies that we started were amongst the most successful companies created from scratch in Australia during the past 30 years, outside the high tech and mining industries.
But of what relevance is this story to you? Well this brings me back to the start of my talk. The importance of doing something that gives you meaning and purpose and the importance of ensuring that your education combines breadth with depth.
We now know from behavioural research, that spending your time doing something that you love is the biggest driver of personal wellbeing. And if what you love doing gives you a sense of meaning and purpose, which means that your work has a positive effect on others, then, this has a multiplier effect on your level of wellbeing. In short what the research shows is that it is important for us to do work that matters.
In the case of ipac, loving what we did gave us the energy to work a lot harder than those who were simply doing it for the money. In fact for us, it never seemed like work. Also important was the fact that the company had a soul. We knew what we were doing mattered profoundly to the lives of our clients. By better understanding their needs and guiding them well, through the maze of financial markets and global economics, we could see the positive difference we were making to their lives.
Being concerned about what mattered to our clients was also key to our financial success, because it prevented us from being sucked in to the vortex of greed and fear that dominates the financial services industry. Notwithstanding the tremendous boom in financial services over the past 30 years, the majority of firms in fact have failed spectacularly. Interestingly, some of the most spectacular failures, such as Long Term Capital Management, have been headed by Nobel Prize winners in Economics.
Any idiot can lose money, It requires brilliance though, to lose a huge amount of money. We have seen this in the Global Financial Crisis during which time the extraordinary ways great companies were able to lose money could only have been invented by geniuses.
Fundamentally I believe the weakness with all these firms is that they lost a focus on what mattered – helping to improve the lives of their clients. By lacking a soul and focusing only on money, they lost perspective and common-sense.
As for breadth of learning and creativity, as an employer, a major problem that I have noticed is that Colleges like this are producing more and more students whose professional and technical qualifications are terrific. But whose breadth of education is narrow. And that’s because too many students choose their subjects based on an ill-informed perspective about employment prospects.
We all know that there is a greater demand for economists than there is for poets. So let’s say your particular interests are Actuarial Studies and Economics. It’s easy to then fall into the trap of saying let me also do Accounting or Business studies – these will be more useful to my employment than Economic History, and even more so than, Latin, Ancient History, Literature, Anthropology and so on.
But this is falling into the trap of thinking that the relationship between knowledge and career success is a simple linear one. It is not. It is a far richer equation. In fact there are diminishing returns for just developing one part of your brain, and increasing returns for adding some diversity. In the same way that our bodies need a balanced diet of different food types our brains need a diversity of sources of learning to develop fully.
Playful thinking, creative restlessness, perspective and an understanding of people are all important to success and the poetry of Shelley or Shakespeare, may provide more insights in this regard than an econometric equation.
I am convinced that the rigour and analytical depth of my Economics degree was critical to my success in business. But so was the broader education I received around my parents’ dinner table. They were not business people, but were creative in terms of their ablity to write and to appreciate the performing arts – my mother was trained as a classical dancer. Through them I had the chance to meet and spend time with Sri Lanka’s word acclaimed Chitrasena and Vajira Dance Co, the Autralian Ballet, photographer Mark Strizic. artist Asher Bilu, sitarist Ravi Shankar and a host of other creative geniuses in various fields. This helped to stimulate the creative side of my mind and more generally a life long sense of curiousity and interest in learning.
Adding to this breadth of education, was my degree in Asian Studies and broader readings including Psychology, which I regard as being equally critical to my success. And all I can say is that there is no finer university than the ANU to gain a broad based education, including an exposure to the arts.
To sum up, discover what you love, work out how you can make it matter to others while, making money from it yourself, but in seeking to make money do not lose your soul. Have confidence that done intelligently, it can pay to study what you love, both financially and in terms of improved wellbeing.
Finally, I would like to say the reason that I am honoured to accept these invitations to speak at the ANU is because so much of the source of my inspiration, knowledge and insight came from here. It’s a debt that I can never repay. The men and women who undertake research and teaching here are simply extraordinary human treasure.
Please never value more the achievement of people like me because I’ve made money, ahead of the achievement of people who have chosen a different path. Google Professor Warwick McKibbin or Professor Jayne Godfrey and you cannot help but be impressed by the breadth of their influence on many policy issues in economics and accounting respectively, as well as the jobs they do here. And they are just two of the examples of the remarkable academics in this University.
But to come back to the start, tonight is about recognising and celebrating the great achievements of the Prize and Scholarship winners. It is important in Australia that we recognise excellence and in this regard I would like to thank the sponsors and donors for their generosity and support that has made this evening possible.
And a very warm congratulations again to all of the winners.
I hope that in some small way this talk will help you to make better choices for yourselves. And that in making these choices, you will also use your potential to help make a better world.