Hisham El-Ansary addresses ANU graduates
Speech to ANU College of Business and Economics Graduation Ceremony in Canberra, Wednesday 14 December 2022 by Bupa APAC CEO Hisham El-Ansary
Thank you very much for that kind introduction. Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on today, the Ngunnawal people. My respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. Let me also acknowledge the ANU Chancellor, the honourable Julie Bishop, and the Vice Chancellor, Professor Brian Schmidt, the graduates, their families and friends. It’s a real pleasure to be here with you on this beautiful Canberra day.
I think the last time I was on campus here at ANU was when I was in your shoes graduating in this very Hall with my Bachelor of Economics - that was in 1988! I suspect a number of you probably hadn't even been born yet. While the grounds remain as beautiful as ever, it was a bit different when I was studying here - we didn’t have iPhones or laptops, we had to take notes with pen and paper and listen to a tape if we missed a lecture. When we wanted to find something out, the internet was not a 'thing' back then, we needed to go to the library and look up index cards to find the book we wanted, then take notes or photocopy the pages we needed. Sometimes, after all that effort, you couldn’t find the book you were looking for because a full-time student had hidden it in the wrong place from the part-time students like me!
Gosh - that's making me sound quite old! But in fact, I'd like to think it’s more a measure of just how fast innovation has changed our lives. So, in thinking about today, I wondered what pearls of wisdom I could pass onto you from an 'almost' old man to a bunch of bright, energetic graduates about to embark on the start of their careers. I’d like to share with you three learnings I've collected over the years, if I may.
Firstly, having spent the better part of the past three years being trained in how to think logically, rationally, with clear purpose and intent (and of course citing all your references), I’d like to suggest that, while there is great value in this approach, there is equal value in ensuring we do not lose sight of the intuitive, the qualitative and the intangible. Max Weber, the German philosopher and sociologist wrote in the early 1900s about what he believed to be the "rationalisation of the modern world" or the loss of our instincts as human beings in favour of logic and reason. Lebanese–American, philosopher and poet, Khallil Gibran, also wrote in his seminal work The Prophet about the inherent tension between "reason and passion" and how your "...soul is oftentimes a battlefield upon which your reason and judgement wage war against your passion and appetite". After dissecting these opposing forces, he concluded that you should "rest in reason and move in passion". As I have travelled through life, I've come to realise that good decisions often involve balancing the quantitative and the qualitative; the logical with the emotional (logos and pathos) - thoughtfully reflecting on issues but once decided, committing to action with great energy and enthusiasm. You'll find it is contagious to those around you.
Secondly, at its heart, economics is about the efficient allocation of resources. By now many of you would understand the basic models and theories that underpin this optimisation and if you haven’t, you can always assume you have, because one of my great memories of economics is that you can make as many assumptions as you want to simplify the real world. But you know, the real world is comprised of people. People with aspirations, hopes, fears and dreams. Their idea of economics is that it simply results in an improvement in the quality of their lives. So, as you embark on your career in finance, banking, the corporate sector or government and public policy, or anywhere else you desire, always remember that at the heart of your thinking should be the real people, in the real world. They don’t always act, as we are told to assume, with perfect knowledge or make rational choices motivated by self-interest. Their choices are intrinsically tied to their values, their circumstances, and their state of mind and how they feel. In large organisations, as in broader society, outcomes are delivered through people. And my learning is that winning their hearts and minds by aligning them to common ambitions, values and ideals is the best way to achieve better outcomes for individuals, your organisation and society as a whole.
So, as you embark on your career in finance, banking, the corporate sector or government and public policy, or anywhere else you desire, always remember that at the heart of your thinking should be the real people, in the real world.
So, if you accept that we need to balance reason and passion and ensure that we focus on people first, then the last point I want to leave you with is, be comfortable with ambiguity. I didn’t set out a life plan for myself trying to anticipate and analyse the various choices I might have along with twists and turns of life, instead I worked hard to keep an open mind to the opportunities that presented themselves to me. By focusing on doing the best job I could in the moment, I often found that the next job took care of itself. As you approach those inevitable forks in the road, do your analysis, but don’t be all consumed by it. Trust that your instincts will help guide you to the right decisions and, if it turns out to not be what you had hope for, there will always be a next move and a next move after that. I have learnt the most from ‘wrong moves’ over the years. Wrong moves can give you great insights into yourself, into others, as well as the world around you if you take a moment to reflect. So don’t be afraid to fail, taking risks leads to innovation and innovation should lead to improvement in the quality of our lives.
Ladies and gentlemen, congratulations on getting this far in your journey, embrace the opportunities that come your way with courage and optimism. Go forth and make your mark on the world – be “first to learn the nature of things”.
Thank you very much.