Like all with greying hair, I wish I could counsel my 20-year-old self – not just to steer his decisions, but to help reassure and take the pressure off making them.
In November 2016, I was lucky enough to do the next best thing. The BBC’s One Show asked if I’d give an hour’s life lecture to students at my old university, the London School of Economics. I did. It made up 90 seconds of a four-minute life-story film, but there was a lot more said.
So we managed to get the raw footage off the BBC. Some wasn’t usable as they were changing shots or microphones, but one element that did make it was the ‘how to be successful’ section. So thanks to MSE’s video producer Anthony, we’ve put together a 15-minute version of it, some may find it interesting, and I hope it will be especially useful for others nearing the start point of their careers…
Here’s a transcript…
What is needed to be successful?
Number one, talent. All of you have that. You wouldn’t be at this, one of the world’s great universities, without it. But you’re not alone – there are a lot of people with talent out there and talent in many different areas, not just academically, not just intellectually, across many different skill sets. But number one, talent.
Number two, hard work. Work harder and longer than everybody else if you really want to be successful. But before you do that, ask yourself do I really want to be successful.
Successful in a vocational sense isn’t everything in life. You might find you get greater happiness from a nine to five, starting a family early, having a wonderful social life and great friends and that you don’t reach those career pinnacles. Think about that first.
I worked 90 hours a week for ten years. I’ve now cut down. I’m technically part-time. That’s 50 to 55 hours a week. That’s what it takes. I’ve already done the working hours that most people have done by the age they’re 60 when they’re retiring. Right? And I’ve had the difficulties that have come with that. I’ve had the stress issues. And your social life isn’t as good.
So, this is on how to be successful but ask yourself first, do I really want that. There is a balance. There is a trade-off between success and happiness and it’s really important to think about it.
Number three on what it takes to be successful: focus, zone. Choose what you’re doing, be absolutely the best. The narrower the field…hopefully it has some resonance but the narrower the field and the better you are at it, the more your chance. Try and be too broad brush and it will not work.
So, we’ve got talent, hard work, focus.
Number four: luck.
Sorry. You can do the first three, you can do them all right and you can still fail. And if that happens to you, don’t think you did something wrong. Failure is a lesson in life. Some of you will do all of that and you will fail. Others will do all of that and you will succeed and the only difference is one of luck.
And don’t beat yourself up about it but before you start on the path, don’t think there is any guaranteed route. People come to this university generally for one of two reasons. They either want to make a lot of money or they want to change the world. If you want to make a lot of money, that’s fine but understand that what goes with that is a responsibility to the impact that you have on everybody else and that’s what you need to learn from this institution.
For those of you who want to change the world, that’s fine but understand you can’t forget the economics. They work both ways round and it’s a lesson that this institution more than anywhere else really needs to focus on.
So, talk to your colleagues and your friends who have the other drive to you. Those who want to do good, talk to the ones who want to make money and try and persuade them of your point. Those who want to make money, talk to the ones who want to change the world and make sure you understand what’s driving them. Because it takes both for us all to thrive in a modern world.
Lesson number three, don’t be afraid to change path. You will be better at something that makes you happy and if it makes you happy you’ll make more sacrifices and you won’t feel as bad doing so.
I talked about being in financial PR. I was 23/24. I was the youngest person that had ever been taken on there and it was muttered to me I’d be the youngest partner in the firm. I resigned the next day. That’s a lie.
Here’s what actually happened but it was a good point. What actually happened was that utterance came to me, I’d been there just under two years and I went home to my family and I said, I need to leave, I don’t want to be a partner in that firm. So, I thought what I wanted to do, I applied the next day to go and do my broadcast journalism post-graduate. I waited two months to be accepted for an interview, another two months for the actual interview.
Once I got the interview and got onto the course, it was two months before it started and I resigned a month before the course started. Because I ain’t stupid, I still needed an income, but in my head I resigned the next day. And this is an important lesson. Some of you are postgrads, some of you are undergrads. I am 22 years of age, don’t smile like that.
In the world of work, I started working 22 years ago. Most of you were still foetal. And it’s important to understand that. As clever and as bright and as ambitious as you are, most of you haven’t started yet and you don’t know what that world is like and until you’ve experienced it, you don’t know what’s right for you.
So, get out there…If you don’t know what you wanna be, set that out and get the best job that you possibly can but then re-evaluate after a couple of years. It’s what I did. I got a great job, it was a good career. It wasn’t the one that was right for me and I wasn’t afraid to change. I was 25, 26. You’re not locked in. Lawyers maybe, doctors maybe, but most of you are not locked in to what you wanna do and don’t feel that once you’ve made your decision, that’s it.
And, equally, that takes some of the fear away of making that first choice because what if I make the wrong decision? It doesn’t matter. You can still change. Just be brave and do it early enough and go for happiness.
It’s not about the jobs you do, it’s about the skills you acquire. We live in a portfolio world. You know, people always ask me what I am. My answer is always I’m a campaigning journalist. Now, I could answer I’m a television presenter. I could claim to be an author. I could claim to be an Internet entrepreneur. I certainly am a charity founder. I am a print journalist. You know, it doesn’t matter what I am, what matters is what skills I’ve acquired.
And those skills have been acquired in the strangest places. I did stand-up comedy as a hobby. That’s one of the reasons I walk up and down when I’m talking to you now, because I’m addressing you all when I talk to you and when you do comedy, you need to look everybody in the eyes when you talk to them and it’s where it starts to come from.
Little story, first job at Brunswick. You know, I was this young bright thing, president of the university, the chairman advised his son to come to the firm. You know, I was the schizzzel (sp?). Right? And the first job I got I was the only person who’d ever gone straight in as an executive, but I had four weeks in the research department before that happened because just to get a feel of exactly what was going on. And one of my jobs in that first four weeks, and it’s slightly different in the Internet age, was putting the financial newspapers on the wall.
I was only meant to do it for a couple of weeks and two weeks went past. Three weeks. Four weeks. Five weeks. And I’m thinking, I’m putting newspapers on the wall. You know, I chaired a debate between the Israeli ambassador to the UK and the head of the Palestinian delegation to the European Union and they’ve got me putting bloody papers up on the wall for five weeks. What’s going on here?
And eventually I had the gumption to ask one of the senior partners – why am I still putting papers up on the wall? Do you know what he said? Look at the papers. That’s not straight. That’s crumpled. None of us can read them properly. You can’t do it properly. The next morning, true story, I came in with a protractor. I measured my right angles, I ironed it down with a tube so that they were flat and I stuck my drawing pins in every corner and two days later I was taken off putting the papers up on the wall.
You’re gonna be like that. You’re all bright or, at least, you all think you are. Yeah? Come on, this is the LSE. Some of you are postgrads. You’re all clever people. And you think, when you go into the world of work that it should bow down and scrape at you. Many of you probably these days don’t ‘cos life’s a bit tougher but that’s what many of us do. And, actually, what you have to do in whatever job you get, I don’t care if it’s your part-time job that you’re doing while you’re at university just to make a little bit of cash on the side, do it with absolutely every ounce of your ability. Because if you can’t do the small jobs, no one’s ever gonna give you the big ones.
Don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be put off that you’re doing something a different way to everybody else because, frankly, if you want to be special, you’re going to have to be different. The two are virtually synonyms but people don’t think that way. So, sometimes that involves risk-taking. Sometimes it won’t work for you.
When I set up the website, and I met the chap who said this to me before, he’s one of my best friends and he was my best man, so there’s no venom in this, he was in marketing at the time and he looked at the website the first time and he said, don’t think it’s gonna work, nobody will really be interested and, by the way, nobody wants a face on websites.
You’re looking a whole different way ‘cos you’re in a different generation. Then, nobody had personal branded websites when they were doing any form of information site. And he said, and you’re gonna need adverts on it, banner ads. That’s how people make money. Why don’t you have any ads on it? And I said, well, I’m not willing to sell people things and I think in money people wanna see the whites of your eyes and to see who they can trust. So, I did it and I broke every single rule.
Don’t be afraid. First mover advantage is the most powerful weapon in any form of career. If you’re the first and it’s good, you’re the best. I invented my own career based around what I’m good at. It’s not a surprise I’m good at it. So, it all started from sending it to my friends and it’s about seizing the moment, realising that you’re on to something and capturing it and that was when the website started. We’re now 15 million users a month on a typical average and I’m now executive chair of it. I’m finally given up being editor in chief but I still oversee it.
I oversee the ethics. Nothing more important in your working life than ethics. And don’t think, when you start out and nobody’s looking and you wanna take your shortcuts and do something a little bit wee, a little bit woe ‘cos it’ll help you get more successful quickly, especially those of you who are gonna be entrepreneurs, if you’re really successful it’ll bite you in the ass. Do it right from day one. Never have a skeleton. Never have something that you did that later, if you’re really successful, people are gonna pull you up on. Have a look at the US presidential election if you don’t believe me.
And this is something they don’t teach you at school and they don’t really teach you in university. Life is full of uncertainty. There are many things we don’t know the answer to.
Now, it could be professional. For me, people ask me what’s gonna happen to the stock market. You’re an expert. I have no idea. Should I buy my dollars now or in three weeks’ time? Well, you’ll all know, quite rightly, I can’t answer that question. If I could, the dollar would have already moved to be at the new equilibrium based on what we all thought it would be. So, you can’t pre-predict what’s going on with the market. Should I buy that house? Should I marry him or her? They all involve uncertainties. They’re all things in which we can’t know the answer to.
And we’re very bad at dealing with that. And we’re very bad psychologically in understanding that. And what happens is worse. People then say, I made the wrong decision. No, no, no. You had a bad outcome.
If you fixed the rate on your mortgage in 2007 and you fixed your mortgage because it gives me certainty of payment and it is within my budget and I can afford this price, the fact that interest rates then plummeted afterwards and you would have been far better off had you gone for a variable rate and you could have reaped the benefits of the decline in interest rates doesn’t make it a bad decision.
You made the right decision based on the information you had at the time and the problem with people then seeing that as a bad decision is it prevents you making the right decision again in the future. So, when you’re making your decisions and uncertainty is involved, which it will be on virtually everything in the world, you have to hope for the best, plan for the worst. Make the decision on the evidence you’ve got, recognise what is uncertain and then afterwards, if it doesn’t go right for you, don’t blame yourself. So, cut yourself some slack. I go back to the beginning of the four things for success.
The last one is luck. If it doesn’t happen for you, you’re not a **** and this, whether it’s a life lesson or it’s an important message, I hope some of you will be successful. I hope some of you will be more successful than I’ve been. Provided you remember one thing. With success, whether that’s financial, celebrated academic, comes responsibility. Whether you like it or not, you become a role model to people and it’s important that you take that responsibility on board. You’re not selfish.
If you had the money, remember you’re the fortunate one. Give back. Give to charity. Whether it’s generic or set something up. I’m very proud I have my money in Mental Health Policy Institute. I have a financial triage system I set up with a Trussell Trust food banks. I fund My Money Week in every school in the country.
I give it back ‘cos it made me and I owe it and I’m lucky. And I won the lottery. I may have worked hard for it, I may have had talent to do it, I may have had the focus that did it but I also got the luck and I’m aware I won the lottery and I’m aware others didn’t and that brings with it a responsibility.
Pay it back. Thank you.