Personal bubble: professional society isolates us by career. Photo: Getty
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It’s good to stray from your professional bubble – you might learn something surprising

In three recent meetings with people who work in entirely different fields, I felt instantly at home, even though the territory was often unfamiliar to me.

Three recent encounters have reminded me that we often learn most from people who live and work in entirely different spheres. Each of the three conversations revolved around subjects with which I was unfamiliar and that were beyond my usual interests. Yet, in each case, I felt more common ground than I do with most people who share my experiences and professional background.

The first meeting was with Howard Marks (the American investor, not the convicted drug smuggler). Our lives do not obviously intersect. I do not come from a financial or business background and have little interest in investment. Indeed, before the meeting I warned him that if the conversation became too technical I would seek instant revenge with a highly detailed disquisition on the LBW laws of cricket.

Throughout our breakfast meeting, how­ever, I saw that the professional sports teams I’d played for would have greatly benefited from the Marks methodology. For instance, sport is torn about how much power it should cede to data. What role should quantitative analysis play in tactics, selection and decision-making? Marks has warned about the same issue in investing: data can only be an aid to sound judgement but never a complete substitute. Economists should be “on tap but never on top”.

Another classic problem in sports management is reading too much into short-term success and failure. I’ve seen many teams recoil from the right strategy after encountering a few early failures. Conversely, I’ve observed teams stick with the wrong strategy just because luck gifted them an unwarranted victory. Marks warns investors about similar dangers. Over the short term, an investor can be right and still lose, just as he can be wrong and yet win. As Marks puts it: “The connection can be tenuous between outcomes (which most people take for reality) and the real, underlying reality.” In other words, you need to disentangle and de-correlate the things you did control (strategy) from the things you didn’t (events). Not easy, but essential.

I gradually realised that investment also has some similarities to one strand of journalism. A good investor seeks mispriced assets: he will buy undervalued things and sell overvalued ones. In the same way, a columnist seeks to identify “mispriced” reputations. Over the long term, he hopes, people will see that he was right to prick holes in unwarranted reputation bubbles and right also to try to rehabilitate reputations that had been wrongly trashed.

The second meeting happened in Abu Dhabi, where I was giving a speech. After the event, I got chatting to a sports entrepreneur. If I know little about investing in other people’s risks, I am no more expert at taking business risks myself. I’ve never set up a company, nor been inclined to.

So I was surprised that his outlook seemed so familiar. He talked about the need to step back from the chalkface, about trying to balance assertive willpower with porous openness to new ideas. Entrepreneurship can be “willed” only so far – there is an element of casting out and waiting for the right fish to bite. He described a process that I recognised as very similar to writing a book. In retrospect, we credit controllable things: discipline, focus, routine, energy, drive, and so on. But they can only direct and polish a far less malleable force: the imaginative ability to sense a new idea.

An entrepreneur needs an idea just as a writer needs a story. And finding new ideas cannot be brought entirely under rational control. Acknowledgment of the limitations of that control, ironically, may be a necessary preliminary to the creative process.

The third encounter took place on home soil, with a local craftsman who is helping me with some modest building projects. I quickly sensed that he has a very enviable life, a set-up to aspire to. Instead of a single boss who can order him around, he has a series of people who commission work from him. He is highly skilled and takes pleasure in what he does. He is exceptionally reliable but if he doesn’t like the way he is being treated by a potential employer, he has enough work elsewhere to turn it down and walk away. The quantity of his work varies, with the freelancer’s inevitable peaks and troughs, but he is able to adjust his spending accordingly – not least because he doesn’t have to pay other people to perform vital services. He can do many of them himself.

He has autonomy, freedom, fun, skill and dignity – what Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, would approvingly term an “antifragile” lifestyle. His career is the opposite of the kind of “big” life – funded by debt, fuelled by social climbing and requiring total careerism – that in fact demands corporate subservience and intellectual compromise. In a funny way, my craftsman acquaintance has more command over his own life than many people who are apparently highly successful.

How are the three meetings connected? In each conversation, I felt instantly at home, even though the territory was often unfamiliar to me. This, I think, is what E M
Forster described as that “secret understanding” between people who may otherwise have little in common.

We are wrong to think that those who share our professional interests also share our approach, still less our values. Just as a class-bound society isolates people into castes, a highly professional society isolates them by career. It replaces lateral stratifica­tion and separation with vertical equivalents.

When we stray from our small professional bubble, apparently aimlessly, we encounter people who are addressing parallel problems, finding insights and affirmation in unusual places.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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We still have time to change our minds on Brexit

The British people will soon find they have been misled. 

On the radio on 29 March 2017, another "independence day" for rejoicing Brexiteers, former SNP leader Alex Salmond and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage battled hard over the ramifications of Brexit. Here are two people who could be responsible for the break-up of the United Kingdom. Farage said it was a day we were getting our country back.

Yet let alone getting our country back, we could be losing our country. And what is so frustrating is that not only have we always had our country by being part of the European Union, but we have had the best of both worlds.

It is Philip Hammond who said: “We cannot cherry pick, we cannot have our cake and eat it too”. The irony is that we have had our cake and eaten it, too.

We are not in Schengen, we are not in the euro and we make the laws that affect our daily lives in Westminster – not in Europe – be it our taxes, be it our planning laws, be it business rates, be it tax credits, be it benefits or welfare, be it healthcare. We measure our roads in miles because we choose to and we pour our beer in pints because we choose to. We have not been part of any move towards further integration and an EU super-state, let alone the EU army.

Since the formation of the EU, Britain has had the highest cumulative GDP growth of any country in the EU – 62 per cent, compared with Germany at 35 per cent. We have done well out of being part of the EU. What we have embarked on in the form of Brexit is utter folly.

The triggering of Article 50 now is a self-imposed deadline by the Prime Minister for purely political reasons. She wants to fix the two-year process to end by March 2019 well in time to go into the election in 2020, with the negotiations completed.

There is nothing more or less to this timing. People need to wake up to this. Why else would she trigger Article 50 before the French and German elections, when we know Europe’s attention will be elsewhere?

We are going to waste six months of those two years, all because Prime Minister Theresa May hopes the negotiations are complete before her term comes to an end. I can guarantee that the British people will soon become aware of this plot. The Emperor has no clothes.

Reading through the letter that has been delivered to the EU and listening to the Prime Minister’s statement in Parliament today amounted to reading and listening to pure platitudes and, quite frankly, hot air. It recalls the meaningless phrase, "Brexit means Brexit".

What the letter and the statement very clearly outlined is how complex the negotiations are going to be over the next two years. In fact, they admit that it is unlikely that they are going to be able to conclude negotiations within the two-year period set aside.

That is not the only way in which the British people have been misled. The Conservative party manifesto clearly stated that staying in the single market was a priority. Now the Prime Minister has very clearly stated in her Lancaster House speech, and in Parliament on 29 March that we are not going to be staying in the single market.

Had the British people been told this by the Leave campaign, I can guarantee many people would not have voted to leave.

Had British businesses been consulted, British businesses unanimously – small, medium and large – would have said they appreciate and benefit from the single market, the free movement of goods and services, the movement of people, the three million people from the EU that work in the UK, who we need. We have an unemployment rate of under 5 per cent – what would we do without these 3m people?

Furthermore, this country is one of the leaders in the world in financial services, which benefits from being able to operate freely in the European Union and our businesses benefit from that as a result. We benefit from exporting, tariff-free, to every EU country. That is now in jeopardy as well.

The Prime Minister’s letter to the EU talks with bravado about our demands for a fair negotiation, when we in Britain are in the very weakest position to negotiate. We are just one country up against 27 countries, the European Commission and the European Council and the European Parliament. India, the US and the rest of the world do not want us to leave the European Union.

The Prime Minister’s letter of notice already talks of transitional deals beyond the two years. No country, no business and no economy likes uncertainty for such a prolonged period. This letter not just prolongs but accentuates the uncertainty that the UK is going to face in the coming years.

Britain is one of the three largest recipients of inward investment in the world and our economy depends on inward investment. Since the referendum, the pound has fallen 20 per cent. That is a clear signal from the world, saying, "We do not like this uncertainty and we do not like Brexit."

Though the Prime Minister said there is it no turning back, if we come to our senses we will not leave the EU. Article 50 is revocable. At any time from today we can decide we want to stay on.

That is for the benefit of the British economy, for keeping the United Kingdom "United", and for Europe as a whole – let alone the global economy.

Lord Bilimoria is the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and the founding Chairman of the UK-India Business Council.