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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Children from "just managing" families most excluded from grammar schools

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said grammar schools "offer nothing to most kids".

Children from "just about managing" families are unlikely to benefit from an expansion of grammar schools because they don't get accepted in the first place, research from the Sutton Trust has found.

The educational charity also found that disadvantaged white British pupils were the least likely among a range of ethnic groups to get access to elite state school education. 

Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said: “The Tories are failing our children. They should be delivering a country that works for everyone but all they have to offer is a plan to build an education system that only helps a handful of already privileged children.

"The evidence is clear - grammar schools reinforce advantage and offer nothing to most kids."

Theresa May launched her premiership with both a pledge to make Britain work for the "just managing" families (consequently termed Jams), and a promise to consider expanding grammar schools. 

The Sutton Trust researchers used the Income Deprivation Affecting Children index to compare access rates to those defined "just about managing" by the Resolution Foundation. 

They found that even non-disadvantaged pupils living in deprived neighbourhoods are barely more likely to attend grammar schools than those in the poorest. The report stated: "This is a strong indication that the ‘just managing’ families are not being catered for by the current grammar school system."

The Sutton Trust also found different ethnic groups benefited differently from grammar schools.

Disadvantaged Black pupils made up just 0.8 per cent of pupils in 2016, while disadvantaged white British pupils made up roughly 0.7 per cent, although disadvantaged white non-British children fared slightly better. Among disadvantaged groups, Asian pupils made up a substantial proportion of grammar school pupils. 

Sutton Trust chairman Sir Peter Lampl said: “Today’s research raises concerns about the government’s plans to use new grammars as a vehicle for social mobility. We need to get existing grammars moving in the right direction before we consider expanding their number.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.