Personal bubble: professional society isolates us by career. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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?

Getty
Show Hide image

The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

0800 7318496