Love, Luck and Unreasonableness
Published in Philip Crisp (editor), So You Want to Be a Leader: Influential People Reveal How to Succeed in Public Life, 2015.
‘[T]he ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.’ - John Maynard Keynes, 1936
In June 1998, I flew out of Australia to work in London. I had no job to go to and not much in the way of savings to support me, but I knew I wanted to do something related to politics. Tony Blair’s government had been elected the previous year, and British Labour was doing exciting things under the rubric of the Third Way. It seemed to be worth taking a chance to secure an interesting opportunity.
In the end, things worked out. I sent about 50 letters to Labour members of parliament, some of whom agreed to meet up for a cup of tea. I spent a few weeks working for the fabulously eccentric Fiona Mactaggart MP, and for Australian expatriate Ross Cranston MP. By Christmas, I was back in Australia, but the experience helped shape me, and I’m glad I took that risk.
For young leaders, there are three pieces of advice I’d offer. Do what you love, recognise that luck will buffet your career, and be a bit unreasonable.
First, doing what you love. A standard mistake that very bright young people make is to place too much value on money and too little value on time. I remember at school a friend of mine wanted to pursue a career in finance. She didn’t think she’d much enjoy studying it, figured the work would be boring, but did think she’d have a great retirement. That’s no way for an 18 year-old to be thinking. You’ll be glad to hear she’s now in a career she loves.
As the cliché goes, if you find a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. I’ve been fortunate to do jobs – such as being associate to former High Court justice Michael Kirby, working as an economics professor at the Australian National University, and serving as a Member of Parliament – that are an untrammelled delight. In this, I know how fortunate I am. For most of human history, hardly anyone had a job they loved. As Hobbes put it, the life of man without the social contract is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Today, most people in the world work to live, not in a job they love. However, if you can find a job you love, you’ll almost certainly be good at it too. Leadership requires that strong sense of commitment, psychological involvement, or in other words loving all the work the position involves.
Don’t expect to know immediately what it is you’ll love. If you’re choosing courses at TAFE or university, take opportunities to sit in the back row of classes to check them out. Ask advice from plenty of people, and take your time to sift through it. Do work experience and internships – it’s striking how much you can learn in just a week in a new workplace. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself shifting jobs a bit at the start of your career: job-matching isn’t just about employers deciding if they like you, but also about you deciding whether you’re a good fit for that career. (Similar advice applies in the romantic realm.)
As you go along, you might find that it helps to have a mentor or two who can keep you on track. The few career and study decisions that I’ve regretted are mostly those where I didn’t take the time to seek more advice from people with grey hair. I don’t have just one mentor; rather I draw heavily on my parents and a handful of senior parliamentary colleagues. They know me, I trust them, and they invariably help me come to the decision that will keep me doing what I love.
Second, expect some good and bad luck. In his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford tells the extraordinary tale of Italian-born Mario Capecchi, whose mother was taken away to a concentration camp in 1940 when he was three years old. Capecchi’s father physically abused him, so he was forced to live as a street urchin from the age of four. At the age of eight, he went into hospital, suffering from typhoid. There was little to eat, and he spent a year in conditions that claimed the lives of many orphans.
On his ninth birthday, a woman entered the hospital ward. At first, Capecchi didn’t recognise his own mother, because of how much weight she had lost in Dachau. Together, they moved to the United States. There, Capecchi studied genetics at Harvard, and applied for a research grant to study whether it was possible to chemically ‘knock out’ a single gene in a mouse. It was a risky project, but he was successful. In 2007, Mario Capecchi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Capecchi had more bad luck before his tenth birthday than most of us will have in our lives. But he had some good luck too. At Harvard, he got to work with the great James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA. Moreover, Capecchi won his US research grant at a time when a UK team were unsuccessful in a similar grant. Luck may not affect you quite as spectacularly, but it will shape your life. The question isn’t whether you’ll be lucky or unlucky, but how you respond to fortune and misfortune.
The best youth sporting coaches are starting to recognise this. A movement called the ‘positive coaching alliance’ is grounded in the notion of helping children realise that they control three things: their level of Effort, whether they Learn from experiences, and how they respond to Mistakes. The E.L.M mantra reminds us that slumps are inevitable, and that the question is how we hard we try, how well we bounce back from adversity, and how successfully we correct our errors.
Luck plays a special role in my own profession of politics. For every person fortunate enough to have served in the federal parliament, there are scores who miss out. Often, those who miss out are at least as capable and hard-working as those who succeed, but simply don’t have the good fortune to win party preselection or the general election. Because of this, I don’t advise anyone to shape a career with the aim of ending up in parliament. Leaders are found in all walks of life. By all means, bear politics in mind when you’re deciding whether to join a political party, what to study, and what jobs to apply for. But a career focused solely around the goal of winning a spot in parliament is likely to be a fragile one. Remember rule number one: it’s better to do something you love.
As an aside, I also think that Australia is better served by people who enter parliament in their 40s or 50s, having had a substantial career (I fail this test, having been elected at age 38). Politics is an extremely competitive profession, and the risk of entering too young is that one’s political career is shaped around power rather than ideas. If you view politics as primarily about beating your opponents rather than building a better Australia, you’re unlikely to make as valuable a contribution to the nation. Having a significant career to fall back onto is also an insurance policy against compromise. In the words of economist Max Weber, it allows you to ‘live for’ politics rather than to ‘live off’ politics.
Third, be unreasonable. Playwright George Bernard Shaw could be a bit stuffy at times, but I do love his line:
‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’
Entrepreneurs are almost always a bit unreasonable. So are the best scientists, artists and writers. One of my favourite tales of unreasonableness is that of the West Australian physician Barry Marshall, who was seeking evidence for his theory that a bacterium called Helicobacter Pylori might be responsible for gastritis. The theory squarely challenged the established medical consensus of the time. To test it, Marshall had a baseline endoscopy carried out, then drank a petri dish containing the bacteria. When he began vomiting a week later, the pain would have been partly offset by the happy knowledge that he had proved many in the medical establishment wrong. In 2005, Marshall shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine with his collaborator Robin Warren.
But you don’t have to drink bacteria to be unreasonable. Sometimes, innovation can be as straightforward as suggesting a way your workplace could operate better, standing up for a person who is being mistreated, or starting a quiet campaign against a social injustice.
Another way of being usefully unreasonable is to bring an unusual perspective to the conversation. Among my Labor colleagues in federal parliament, I particularly value the contributions of people with a background that’s a bit different to the rest. Melissa Parke used to work at the United Nations. Catherine King was a social worker. Mark Dreyfus was a barrister. Julie Owens was a musician. As it happens, Melissa, Catherine, Mark and Julie each entered federal politics in their 40s.
I appreciate the different perspectives that they bring to our conversations about ideas, and it’s encouraged me to ‘revert to type’ as an economist. Fundamentally, I think about issues through the lens of economics, using tools such as cost-benefit analysis, supply and demand modelling, and ignoring sunk costs. Increasingly, I’ve found that the most valuable contribution I can make to policy debates is from the standpoint of an economist. Public policy is formed in the cut and thrust of a range of competing perspectives; my aim is to bring the most informed economic analysis into the mix. The unreasonable nature of my contribution is that policy decisions are not always made from an economic perspective. Being a team player with a quirky well-informed contribution is a bit like cooking – where the meal invariably tastes better than each of the individual ingredients.
So, those are my three pieces of advice for young leaders.
A core premise of Messages for New Leaders is that young Australians are disenchanted with politics. On average, this is certainly true (see my book Disconnected for a summary of the statistical data). But as a member of parliament, I also have the privilege to meet a plethora of young people who are idealistic, passionate, and purposeful. My purpose in writing this essay is to tell some stories about making a difference, and perhaps to leave the reader with a sense that a life of service to others is a life well lived.
Extremists of the left and right often try to perpetuate a view that political decisions are the result of selfishness or stupidity. ‘Elect a smart altruist’, the argument goes, ‘and all will be well’. But while a few people in public life are daft or mercenary, most public servants and parliamentarians are in fact well-informed people who aim to make the world a better place. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a positive difference too – but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re the only one in the room with a reasonable argument. If the problem you worry about had a simple solution that made everyone better off, chances are that someone would have implemented it already.
When Philip Crisp asked me to write this essay, I jumped at the chance. Working with young people in my own community is one of the most enjoyable parts of being a member of parliament. When I check my diary in the morning and see that I’m speaking at a school, meeting with a group of young people to discuss overseas aid, or having a conversation with young sports stars, it always puts a spring in my step. So if you’re a young person who’s keen to get active in politics, don’t be shy about approaching your elected representatives. Chances are that they’re as keen to chat with you as you are to speak with them.
Finally, you might reasonably ask: how well have I followed my own three pieces of advice? As I noted above, I’ve loved all my jobs. I’ve done my best to recognise the role of Lady Luck in my upswings and downturns. My main mistake is probably that I haven’t been quite unreasonable enough. So that’s on my ‘to-do’ list for the years to come.
Andrew Leigh is the Federal Labor Member for Fraser, in the ACT. Prior to being elected in 2010, he was a professor of economics at the Australian National University. Andrew holds a PhD in public policy from Harvard, and has previously served as associate to High Court Justice Michael Kirby. In 2011, he received the 'Young Economist Award', a prize given every two years by the Economics Society of Australia to the best Australian economist under 40. His books include Disconnected (2010) and Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia (2013). A father of three sons, Andrew lives with his wife Gweneth in Hackett. His website is www.andrewleigh.com.