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15 May 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:54am

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.

By Ed Smith

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.

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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.

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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)