At the ANU with my father – 2011
Recently I was asked to be the Guest Speaker at a graduation ceremony at my alma mater, the Australian National University in Canberra. As I joined the grand and very formal Chancellor’s procession, leading into the hall, I felt quite emotional. I remembered my own graduation 30 years ago, a great family day, attended by both of my parents. Now, I again had a very proud Dad in the audience, together with my two teenage sons and partner, but sadly it was not an event that my mother survived to be part of.
I remembered how my own graduation marked a major transition point in my life where I had both the joy and responsibility for my own future.
Sitting on the stage, I tried to gather my thoughts as I watched the new graduates walk past to collect their degrees. Their faces were hopeful, proud, happy and yet a little pensive as they contemplated this life transition for themselves. It was a wonderful moment to be part of and I wanted to deliver a speech to them that hopefully, they would find inspiring and maybe even a little liberating as they thought about how to forge their future life.
Maybe they, too, have dreams of trying to change the world, or at least, just their little corner of it.
As I looked at proud and expecant faces of the graduates’ families in the audience, I realised how much of an honour it was to be asked to be the Guest Speaker. But it also highlighted that I had a challenge to ensure that I captured and did justice to the importance of the occasion. It was a 10 minute talk that took some days to prepare. This is the speech that I gave to these new graduates – I hope that you will share your thoughts with me:
Arun Abey – Conferring of Degrees Speech, ANU 15 December 2011
Some decades ago, I sat where you are sitting, waiting to get my degree. It was one the greatest days of my life. I had many happy years on the campus, but was looking forward to excellent job prospects, with Economics and Arts degrees from the ANU.
Like most of you, I had little money of my own and from high school I had spent many hours working in supermarkets to help pay my way. Working filling shelves involved long days moving tons of goods and my hands still have the callouses.
To be honest, at school my first career ambition was to become a checkout chick to save my hands and back. But funnily enough, in those days it was not a job guys were allowed to do. So I had to become an economist instead.
It is natural for graduates, and their very proud, but also long suffering parents to be sitting here and thinking great, I am now going to try and get a well paying job, secure myself financially, and that will be the key to being happy.
I want to share with you a radical thought. That based on my experience, as well as the latest behavioural research, you should, in fact, be thinking about the opposite.
The most important thing to be thinking about now is what will make you happy. This is the key to financial success. To put it simply, it’s not money that buys happiness, but happiness that gets you money.
Let me share with you why this is important and the research underpinning it.
Those of us with the good fortune to live in countries like Australia are amongst the first generation in history to have the potential to thrive.
What do I mean by thrive? Since the second world war, the steady improvements in technology, affluence and personal freedom, provide us with the opportunity to be authentic. To discover who we truly are, and to make life’s important decisions according to this. Earning a degree from this great university, only magnifies that potential.
So what stops us?
Because the paradox of living in the most affluent era of human history is that we have the highest recorded rates of stress, anxiety and depression. While income per head has tripled over the past 60 years, measured happiness has remained about the same. But far more seriously, the youth suicide rate has tripled.
Happiness aside, we do not seem to have converted affluence into financial security, with a majority of people, even those earning over $100,000 per year spending more than they earn. It’s easy a decade or so from graduation to find yourself on a treadmill, working harder and longer for ever more money, with a McMansion filled with stuff, but a mortgage to match. And lacking a clear sense of purpose, a nagging concern in the back of your mind that something is not quite right and asking the question How Much is Enough?
Why does this happen?
For most of our evolution, the focus of our minds had to be to survive, not thrive.
For our ancestors, a good day was finding lunch and not being lunch. A really good day was surviving to night time and having the chance to reproduce. Actually that still sounds like a typical day on the campus. Maybe nothing much has changed.
But our hard wired instincts for survival, while still invaluable, can also trip us up in the modern world of complex choices and decisions, because they cause us to lose perspective. We have a tendency to myopia, to placing more emphasis on the headlines and the immediate past, rather than weighing up all the data, and a tendency to unthinkingly follow the herd. These undermine our longer term wellbeing and wealth.
They stop us from thriving.
So how can loving what we do help us to overcome this? The research by people like Professor Martin Seligman shows that if you are really engaged in what you do – if it creates what the psychologists call a sense of flow when you are doing it – then this is a key to wellbeing. As our latest Nobel Prize winner, Professor Brian Schmidt said, he did not know what he wanted to become, but decided to do astronomy, because it’s what he would have done for free.
What work inspires a similar feeling in you?
In addition, the research shows that if your work also has a positive effect on others, then your sense of wellbeing doesn’t just increase, it is multiplied. You now awaken to a sense of meaning and purpose. Close relationships, a sense of accomplishment, as you have today, and a sprinkling of pleasures are what round off longer term wellbeing.
But how does loving what you are doing, help you financially?
I do not want you to believe for a moment that I have a romantic view that money doesn’t matter or will just turn up. I did not have the luxury of being born with a silver spoon in my mouth and I realise that you have to work hard to convert your passions into financial security. We came to Australia when I was very young because my father was employed by a Sri Lankan agency to promote tea in Australia.
Unfortunately the agency did not realise that the cost of living in Australia was about 5 times higher than in Sri Lanka in setting my father’s salary. My parents could only afford a public education, but the best public schools were in expensive suburbs. So we ended up in very posh Killara in Sydney’s North Shore, but living in a tiny one and a half bedroom flat, really a converted commercial office, on the Pacific Highway, opposite a pub and above a dog grooming salon.
I was embarrassed to invite friends home, I did not bother to participate in rep trials for my best sport – soccer, because we could never afford the boots, and many years later the first family car that we owned came from my supermarket earnings. I grew up with a desperate desire for money and financial independence.
But I was never so desperate that I was willing to commit to a career which did not inspire me, even if the money seemed great. And I had the good fortune at a young age to discover what I loved.
I loved economics, both for the richness of its ideas, the potential for it to reduce poverty in developing countries and for it to reduce my poverty by better investing in the stock market. That last bit did not work by the way.
My first job was in economic research at this university, working on Indonesian economic development. It was a wonderful experience. In the process though, I discovered that I did not just want to produce research ideas, but that I wanted to try and get my hands dirty in putting some of them into practice. I also needed to improve my financial position. And this would require me to take some risk.
So this led me to co-found my own business – ipac securities – a financial advisory and wealth management business, at the age of 24. My co-founders were about the same age and so we had little experience or money. But we all loved what we were doing and we were prepared to work really hard – except that it never felt like work.
Reflecting my interests, ipac is a strongly research based company. One of our ideas at ipac was to take the latest academic research and work out how to interpret it for personal clients. It’s an opportunity that still exists.
It took many years to establish the company with lots of ups and downs. I was stretched to learn many new skills, some of which were way out of my previous comfort zone. Today the company is known for its research, innovation, adaptation and resilience – all characteristics of people who love what they are doing and it has been a long term financial success, becoming one of the most valuable firms of its type in Australia and indeed in the world.
That said, one of my greatest pleasures has been building client relationships, some going back almost 30 years, through the ups and downs in the world economy, as well as in their own lives and seeing my work give them some sense of peace and security. It’s what’s given me a sense of meaning and purpose.
My more general point is that people who enjoy their jobs tend to work harder, to be more creative and innovative, and to have far greater resilience to endure the hard times that are a part of any career. And that’s what leads to more sustainable financial success.
So a question for each for each of you to think about is have you discovered what you love doing and have you got at least a sense of how to weave it into your career? And if not, how are you going to do this? It is a key to thriving.
In concluding, as a fellow graduate, I would like to pay a tribute to the ANU. Let me share three of the many things that I have learned here that have been of life-long benefit and helped me to thrive. The first is how to think in a rigorous way. This is not an easy University to graduate from and the College of Business and Economics is particularly demanding, but the quality of thinking that it instills is something you will call on everyday.
Second is the breadth of learning. Progress in your careers involves being able to see connections from many different disciplines. The ANU’s array of combined degrees are fantastic for this and if you haven’t done any subjects outside this College, I would strongly encourage you to explore some.
In my Asian Studies degree I was exposed to the discipline of anthropology and one of the tribes I studied had been head hunters. Of what use is this? Well, as you build a business, and you find yourself managing people, you realise that economics and accounting are not enough.
Understanding the anthropology, sociology and psychology of groups provide invaluable insights for effective leadership. In fact, as we have seen in the Global Financial Crisis, many financial services firms bore a remarkable resemblance to head hunting tribes.
Last, but not least, I learned the importance of having a sense of humanity. When I worked at the University, I was struck by the fact that it comprises an extraordinary collection of people who, though paid only moderately, are remarkably talented, dedicated and committed to making a positive difference to others, through the research and dissemination of ideas. It’s a very inspiring place to work and that desire to make a difference has stayed with me through my business career and in the philanthropic work that I do, focusing on microfinance and the education of the disadvantaged through The Smith Family.
But today is your day. Congratulations on a wonderful achievement. And congratulations, too, to your parents whose role I now have a better appreciation of. I hope that today marks an important step in a life which is rich in challenge, opportunity, meaning, and accomplishment, while also achieving financial security.
I hope that all of you will thrive.
With my mother at my own graduation from ANU – 1981