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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“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

***

However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

***

Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.