Sep 282012

With some of the impressive young prize winners and Jayne Godfrey the very accomplished Dean of the College of Business and Economics

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.

Apr 282012


Cradle Mountain from the beautiful Dove Lake

 If you want to enhance your wellbeing by communing with nature and really experiencing the great outdoors, few places offer better options than the island of Tasmania. It’s off Australia’s southern tip and too often left off maps of Australia that just show the mainland. On a recent visit to Cradle Mountain, we discovered why this has become one of the island’s favourite and famed destinations.  The mountains are not especially high – Cradle Mountain being at its highest just over 5,000 feet. But their steepness, shape, distinct characteristics and the lakes which are dotted through the range, give the whole area a dramatic, picturesque quality.

Cradle Mountain from Marion’s Lookout
The whole area is dotted with great walks, which give very different aspects of Cradle Mountain and the surrounding terrain. A moderately steep, but rewarding walk is up to Marion’s Lookout

The Face Track from Dove Lake is a scramble

The most spectacular, but very steep, climb up to the base of Cradle Mountain, is via the Face Track, starting at Dove Lake and requiring pulling yourself up by chains towards the top.

The Face of Cradle Mountain

You get a completely different perspective of Cradle Mountain from the top of the Face Track

On the way to the Summit!
The track up to the Summit is pretty good, but involves some boulder hopping towards the top.

On top of Tasmania - Dove Lake and Hansen Peak on the right from Cradle Mountain

But the boulder hopping is worth it, if just for the views below which stretch out far into the horizon

The Twisted Lakes from Hansen Peak

Hanson Peak also offers another challenging, but rewarding climb, passing the Twisted Lakes and vistas of even more lakes beyond.
Pademelon at the front door
A scraping at the front door of our cabin turned out to be a pademelon wanting to come in and join us by the fire.

A final glimpse

Last but not least, the view of Cradle Mountain on the descent from Marion’s Lookout, with Lake Lilla in the foreground and Dove Lake below it. It’s hard not to be inspired. And not to be happy.
Jan 062012

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

 Posted by at 11:55 AM
Nov 292011

Pria Viswalingam & crew members at Cambridge University (Photo: © Fork Films)

The Western world seems to be in decline – but what is really happening? What are the forces behind this?

Five years ago Pria Viswalingam approached me to join him in producing a film on the topic.

“We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.”      Kenneth Clark

All civilisations rise and fall. For 300 years, the Judeo-Christian West has been the world’s pre-eminent civilisation. So, where is the West on the timeline? Many have theorised about the fall of western civilisation but now we appear to have the evidence.

Low birth rates, ageing populations, debt-laden economies and immigration – the West consumes without consequence, loves without longevity and lives without meaning. Peak oil, climate change, the GFC is the world without. Decadence, a lush essay-style documentary filmed in ten countries, is about the world within, about us. About what we have gained and lost. About a new renaissance or a final dark age?

You choose.

‘Decadence: Decline of the Western World’ is the result and it is going to start screening at Roseville Cinema in Sydney on 1 December and at the Nova Carlton in Melbourne from 8 December before select international screenings.

It is a thought provoking and timely production and I do hope that you get a chance to see it.

For more information, you can head to the website which provides much more information, screening details and more.

This review by Carissa Pritchard of Film Ink:

The feature length documentary, Decadence: Decline of the Western World, evolved from a six-part television series, Decadence: The Meaninglessness of Modern Life, commissioned by SBS. Written, directed and hosted by Australian journalist, Pria Viswalingam, it travels across the US, Britain, Europe, Iraq, India and Thailand to explore five core themes: money, democracy, education, family and religion.

Where this year’s Oscar-winning documentary The Inside Job left you lost amongst complicated economic theory, Decadence avoids it – instead addressing the impact of capitalism on our personal lives. Melding shocking statistics with social discourse from many of the world’s greatest minds (Noam Chomsky and Australia’s Clive Hamilton), it puts forth disturbing fact and compels us to ask unsettling questions. America is one of the most affluent countries in the world, yet it consumes three quarters of the world’s anti-depressants. Why has the greatest prosperity led to the greatest level of unhappiness? This documentary isn’t only applicable to intellectuals and left-wing evangelists; it’s insightful viewing for anyone who lives in the West.

Suggesting that all civilisations rise and fall, it wonders where the West is on the timeline. Amongst peak oil, climate change and the GFC, it doesn’t look good. But Decadence isn’t a doomsday prophecy. Amongst individualisation gone mad, it still suggests that there’s hope for humanity. Ultimately it asks, is the West in a final dark age or a new renaissance?

You decide.


Nov 292011


Possibly the best gift you could give your children this Christmas is to teach them the value of giving.

Just one example from Kiva.

While there is strong psychological research showing giving increases the sense of wellbeing of the giver, we are not born with this knowledge.

The truth is people consistently over-estimate the impact on their wellbeing of acquiring things and underestimate the impact of giving, especially to those to whom they have an emotional connection.

But this can be overcome by encouraging our children to experience the joy of giving directly. A good way to do this is to give them a gift voucher to microcredit charity Kiva.

How Kiva Works from Kiva on Vimeo.

The beauty of the Kiva website is that it connects lenders to poor entrepreneurs all around the world. So for as little as $25, you give your child the power to significantly change another person’s life.

Better still, your child can sit down and browse through the profiles of entrepreneurs in a variety of countries and choose who they’d like to lend money to. This way, they can see directly how they are helping a real person make great strides towards economic independence and improve life for their family.

It’s also a great way to teach children the value of money, and help them understand financial concepts such as lending, repayments and interest. Best of all, it’s an ongoing experience for you and your child.

Here are some really interesting statistics:

Throughout the course of the loan (usually 6-12 months), you and your child will receive email updates and track repayments.

Then, when your child gets their loan money back, (the repayment rate is around 98%), they can re-lend to someone else.

Through this process, your child can develop an emotional connection with the recipient, and will no doubt receive significant emotional capital in return for a small dollar investment.

This is a great way for them to learn early the value of giving.

Sometimes concern is expressed about the amount of donated funds that are dedicated to running an organisation, as opposed to your donation going where it’s needed. Organisations DO cost money to run, there is no doubt about that, but this is how Kiva do it.

They have commercial sponsors who donate to the running costs of Kiva, they are supported by philanthropists large and small, and you as an individual can also choose to donate to the running of Kiva if you choose:


Introducing your family, your children, to the act of giving is in itself a gift!

Try it, you’ll like it.


(This article first appeared on in 2010)

Nov 162011

Ann Sutoro worked with poor villagers. (Photo:

Ann Dunham (Soetoro) Sutoro’s life is changing the course of history, yet most people have never heard of this remarkable woman.

When I first met Ann in Jakarta in March 1981, I had no idea how great an impact she would have on world history and politics. I was travelling on a field trip as a researcher in the Department of Business and Economics at the Australian National University (ANU) where I was privileged to be working with prominent academics like Heinz Arndt and Ross Garnaut. I was particularly interested in the potential impact of improving technology on living standards in Indonesia.The ANU had given me a list of senior contacts, but the only person willing to meet with me was Ann, then a 39 year old program officer, focusing on rural development and the role of women for the Ford Foundation. We had an immediate rapport. Ann saw me as a young person who shared her idealism and passion for solving the problems of poverty in Indonesia. Perhaps I reminded her of her son Barry, born in Hawaii in 1961, a few years younger than me, and then studying and working in the United States.She insisted that I save money by moving out of my hotel and offered me a spare room in her home, which served as my base for several weeks and again on a subsequent trip. Ann’s comfortable bungalow welcomed a wide variety of visitors from senior politicians and business people to researchers and ordinary folks. But what I valued most was the ability to accompany Ann on field trips into Indonesian villages, to study first-hand the work of weavers because the weaving industry there was one of the most important employers of labour.

Ann, a single mother of two, was living in Indonesia with her daughter Maya, and was also looking at the blacksmithing industry, which was to be the topic of her doctoral thesis. Traipsing through villages was hot and hard work, which Ann took on cheerfully and with customary calm. She was a popular figure, keen to make a difference and welcomed for her unpretentiousness, sincerity and sense of care. While Ann followed her interests and values in Indonesia, her son ‘Barry’, had graduated with a degree in political science at Columbia University, and in 1986 was working as a community organiser in Chicago for the Developing Communities Project.

Although you would never pick it from her demeanour, Ann’s life had been far from easy. Her son was born when she was only 18, the result of a relatively short-lived relationship with an African man from Kenya. Her second marriage to an Indonesian student she met in Hawaii, had ended a year before I met her and had resulted in the birth of her daughter.

The Sutoro Family in Jakarta (Photo:

When Ann moved to Indonesia in the mid 1960s it was a time of great political turbulence. For a Kansas born, white woman, learning to survive in a foreign country, and bringing up two children as a single parent, this should have been daunting. But if it was, Ann didn’t show it.

Far from bemoaning her circumstances as a single mother, Ann felt that she and her children enjoyed relatively privileged lives.  Her sense of appreciating privilege and her compassion for others less fortunate, is a quality that is echoed in the many now well-known public addresses of her adult son ‘Barry’.  Ann showed no bitterness towards her children’s respective fathers and in fact encouraged the children to keep in touch with them.

Given that Ann was so gentle and easy going, I was struck by her commitment to educating her children; there was a firmness in her voice when she declared that she expected her kids to try for straight As in their school work. The formula certainly worked with her children. I used to read books at night to Maya, then a very cute 10 year old. Maya went on to excel academically, earning two Masters degrees, a doctorate and then becoming a school and university teacher in Hawaii.

Over 20 years later, I was amazed to discover before the last US presidential elections that Barry was none other than Barack Obama, who exceeded even her expectations, when he became the 44th President of the United States. Sadly, Ann did not live to see or even anticipate his success. She died prematurely in 1995 of ovarian cancer, shortly after completing her doctorate.

Obama’s writings about his mother are somewhat ambivalent. His memoir Dreams From My Father, as the title suggests, was more about his absent father than his supportive mother. In some of his comments about her “dreaminess”, there is the hint of someone who was a bit bohemian. But in the second edition of his memoir he acknowledged that: “What is best in me, I owe to her.”  He is absolutely right, and I believe that Ann’s role in his success has been rather understated.

When I discovered who Ann Sutoro’s son was, I was working with my co-author Andrew Ford, on a new chapter on ‘Kids, Money and Happiness’ for the latest version of our book How Much is Enough?.  For all her unconventionality, we felt that Ann’s parenting style showed all the characteristics that we believe help to produce emotionally resilient, responsible, successful people. These characteristics include parents who pursue lives of passion and affection for their children and who have the ability to instil a sense of discipline and compassion.

Ann bestowed unconditional love on her children while having high expectations of them. She didn’t talk of a specific money-oriented career to her children – they were free to discover their own passions – but she wanted them to feel a deep sense of personal responsibility, to do as well as they could and to be generous of spirit. She exemplified the values she was trying to teach her children by resolutely continuing to study, work and pursue a career in areas that inspired her. This involved connecting with a wide range of people and helping the welfare of others. Her days were incredibly long and demanded great stamina. But in her short life, she combined anthropology and economics very effectively.

She helped to pioneer micro-finance at a grass roots level, while also being a supporter of local arts and culture, a development worker and an activist for democratic reform. Above all, Ann understood that the pursuit of money for its own sake was of no value. For her, money was an enabler and she saw it as being more important for her children to have a worthwhile sense of meaning and purpose.

I believe that Ann’s values were supported by her parents, especially her mother. Well before the Oscar winning Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner made its debut, Ann had startled her parents by her choice of partners. But far from judging or rejecting her daughter, Ann’s mother provided love and support, including looking after Barack when he was studying in Hawaii.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was able to synthesise the diverse elements of his background to reach out and unite a vast array of people around the world. While he is clearly his own person, I feel that some key elements of Ann shine through in his key speeches. He displays her sense of compassion, sensitivity and desire for social justice, blended with determination and toughness. But above all President Obama’s success crystallises some of the key elements of being a successful parent.

Ann Soetoro showed how a parent with her approach can inspire her children to overcome daunting obstacles to achieve any goal. As President, Obama has achieved mixed success. I think he has made some poor economic and administrative decisions, resulting in waste, contributing to the rise of the Tea Party and to a very polarised political environment generally. So far he is lacking in the skills of someone like a Paul Keating – the ability to articulate a clear vision, with well founded economic and social roots and then the ability to sell it.

But if he is truly his mother’s son, Barack Obama will show the determination and skills to learn from these mistakes, to mount an effective re-election campaign and fulfil his potential to become a great leader in these most challenging of times.

(This article first appeared in Nov 2011)





Nov 052011

Dochula Pass (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons - user rajkumar1220)

While Bhutan’s version of modernisation is bringing it many benefits and its idealism is welcome in a world of so much cynicism, the country of course is far from perfect. The issue of national identity can be vexing and has led to a mass exodus from the country of people from Nepal. The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has not entirely prevented modernisation from having detrimental effects on its culture.

Bhutanese are now able to view a large number of Indian tv programs, whose content is as inane as ours in Australia And it drives a distorted vision of  what to do with newfound wealth. The check-in counter for the flight to Paro from Bangkok was crammed with people laden with all sorts of electronic consumer toys. Contact with the modern world is more likely to produce lots of Kaths and Kims, rather than those more intent on exploring the deeper boundaries of personal and social wellbeing.

Taxis in the capital Thimphu (Photo: CC Flickr user: juanzadeng)

The main street of Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, now has a drop in centre for drug addicts and more generally the government is battling to come to grips with the full social implications of modernisation, even given its guiding principles. Hopefully though, the  Bhutanese will succeed in keeping much of what is special about them, while they continue on the journey of modernisation.  The best thing is to check it out for yourself, sooner rather than later, just in case a bit of the magic is lost.

The Lonely Planet Guide to Bhutan is very useful and up-to-date and provided some useful information for this blog.

Most of the great walks in Bhutan lead to, or past, several monasteries. There is a beautiful half day loop through the Phobjikha Valley, winter home of the black-necked crane, to the Gangtey Monastery.

Bhutan’s version of Buddhism is very mystical, shrouded in legendary figures with magical powers. One of the most famous saints is the Divine Madman(1455-1529) who used outrageous behaviour to challenge people’s conceptions and to try and get across the teachings of the Buddha.

His sexual exploits were famous and included the wives of his hosts and supporters as he travelled around the country. The phalluses decorating many houses are supposedly modelled on his and represent both a symbol of fertility and ward off evil spirits. It’s hard not to love a country which includes such a character in its pantheon of saints.

Remembering the Divine Madman

Similar to the Irish Catholic tradition, in the era of large families, it was considered economic and politic for at least one son to enter the priesthood. Even today, the trainee monks can start very young, though this tradition will inevitably disappear.

The monks start young

There is the perception that travel to Bhutan is expensive. The government levies a minimum  fee of $US250 (from 2012)  per visitor per day.  However, this fee includes accommodation, transport within the country, food and a guide.  So in value for money terms it’s certainly reasonable. The accommodation and food is about a basic Travelodge standard, though for an additional cost can be upgraded – all the way up to Aman resorts whose daily charge is about equal to the country’s per capita GDP.

But Bhutan is best experienced more simply, through treks and camping in the mountains, taking time to breathe some of the world’s purest air, enjoy the vistas and  above all, the people.  Our last adventure was trekking to a camp site at an altitude of 12,000 feet above Paro. It yielded a view of the Bhutanese Himalayan range, which while not Everest, does have peaks up to 21,000 feet.

A Glimpse of Bhutan's Himalayas

And a great view into the Paro valley down below. This is where the main airport is and the winding approach through the valley makes for a spectacular landing.

A landing in a very special place.  One you should try for yourself. It may be one of the happiest experiences of your life.

The Paro Valley


Click for The Happy Kingdom Part 1


Nov 042011

A Peaceful Life: Monks on their way to a Monastery near Thimpu

Bhutan is one of the few magical countries left on earth.  What particularly attracted us to visit it, is the fact that this is the country that invented the idea of Gross National Happiness – but more about this later.

About the size of Switzerland, this Himalayan kingdom is a country of mountainous forests, riverine valleys and only 700,000 people, steeped in Buddhist mysticism.  A huge contrast to China and India which surround the land-locked country.  The people are essentially the result of mixing Chinese and Indians over the centuries, including a strong Tibetan influence.

The mountainous terrain has long restricted travel and in fact the various local fiefdoms which made up the country were only united under a single king in 1907.

A policy of isolation continued until 1961, when it was replaced by a policy of controlled development that saw the gradual modernisation of the country, with the first paved roads, national currency, schools and hospitals being introduced.

Road travel remains challenging with landslides caused by earthquakes and the summer monsoon being common.  In fact our progress by car was impeded by the results of a major earthquake in the week just before our arrival.

Landslides can make travel by road challenging

But hikers and trekkers are rewarded, by breathtaking scenery, warm, friendly people who have a charm, simplicity and sense of courtesy which has been lost in the rest of the world. It’s probably like Nepal in the era of Edmund Hilary, before that country lost its way politically and its trails became tourist highways.

The three hour drive from the capital Thimphu to Punakha had breathtaking views. Punakha is also home to one of the country’s most famous Dzongs – a fortress combining a monastery, temples and public administration buildings.

Punakha: a Valley of Breathtaking Beauty

First built in 1637, crossing the bridge over the river to enter the Dzong is to be welcomed into a world of exquisite calm and meditative peace. It was the site of the Royal Wedding last week, preparations for which were being made as we toured the building.

Punakha Dzong: A stunning, peaceful oasis

The most spectacular one day walk in Bhutan is the 5 hour round trip from Paro up to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which has been built impossibly on a ledge up a steep mountain.

The King’s mother is a regular pilgrim to the Monastery and we met her as she and her entourage swept past us on our climb up.

Tiger's Nest Monastery from the start of the trail up

A remarkably charming and attractive woman, the former Queen stopped to chat for about 10 minutes and reinforced the country’s commitment to the more holistic notion of development encompassed by the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Tiger's Nest Monastery

Above all it was to see this idea in action, an idea that had great intuitive and emotional appeal to us, that had led us to Bhutan.

In the early 1970s the country’s fourth King accelerated modernisation and for the first time allowed tourism. To guide Bhutan’s modernisation policy, the King introduced the concept of GNH.   Drawing on core Buddhist and humanistic values, it emphasises that economic growth is a means to more important ends, rather than being an end in its own right.

A framework has been developed to guide policy decision making, that places real value on things such as cultural heritage, health, education, good governance, ecological sustainability and diversity. Individual wellbeing is given great importance and this is defined holistically, rather than in narow commercial terms. The Bhutanese have shown remarkable foresight given the avalanche of research on  happiness and wellbeing that has since emerged, highlighting the wisdom of their approach.

The Centre for Bhutan Studies, set up by the government is doing considerable work on developing measures to underpin GNH and the GNH Commission, chaired by the Prime Minister, screens all new policy proposals for their impact on GNH.  With the benefit of international collaborators, eight general contributors to happiness have been found: physical, mental and spiritual health, time-balance, social and community vitality, cultural vitality, education, living standards, good governance and ecological vitality.

Bhutan’s Prime Minister’s speech to the United Nations last month was on the topic of happiness and its relevance to economic policy. It’s a speech worth reading for its clarity and inspiration. But are people happier as a result of all of this? While Bhutan’s economy has been growing well over the past few decades, it remains a relatively poor country, though one spared the abject poverty still evident in parts of India. But according to psychologist Adrian White of the University of Leicester, who produced the first ever ‘world map of happiness’Bhutan ranked eighth out of 178 countries.  And it is the only country in the top 20 happiest countries that has a very low GDP.

The King showed not only insight, but also humility when he recognised that ‘Monarchy is not the best form of government because the king is chosen by birth and not by merit’ and decided on a transition to a democratic, constitutional monarchy. This culminated in his abdication in favour of his 26 year old son in 2006, followed by parliamentary elections and the first executive government, headed by the Prime Minister.

The new King has become hugely popular, as was evident in the public warmth which bathed his recent wedding to his 21 year old sweetheart. The joy shown in the ceremony reflected the sense of joy in this country as a whole.


His Majesty the King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and Queen to be Ashi Jetsun Pema (Photo: Tourism Council of Bhutan)


Click for The Happy Kingdom Part 2



Nov 042011

How can we use money to improve wellbeing? Arun Abey, co-founder of Walsh Bay Partners, a public speaker and a consultant on strategy, believes that personal success and wellbeing begin with better understanding ourselves and mastering our minds.

With the publication of his best-selling book ‘How Much Is Enough’, Arun combines the latest behavioral research with compelling stories of those who have found meaning beyond their bank accounts, including Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Ann Sutoro (the mother of President Obama).  Arun and co-author Andrew Ford are leaders in exploring the relationship between money and happiness. One of their most intriguing findings is that while money may not buy happiness, being happy helps you to make money. Or as they put it: “The people who are happy and rich, were happy first and rich second”.

What motivates Arun: ‘This is a rich and growing area of research that I find both intellectually stimulating  and practically useful in all aspects of my life; from working with the private clients of Walsh Bay Partners, big corporates, the disadvantaged, to my own life and last, but not least, my kids. Trying to bring these research ideas to life gives me a sense of meaning as well as achievement when I see this having a positive effect on the lives of others.’


 Posted by at 3:18 PM

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