Starting at Auckland University

Summary: If you’re not sure what to do, take a BA/BSc. Don’t just do what your parents say and don’t do a BCom. Do, however, spend a lot of time at the business school.

My (now not so) little sister is beginning university next year. Since my attempts at creating rules against growing up have all failed, I thought I’d lay down what I wish someone had told me when I was choosing what to study. This isn’t the normal advice on how to do well at uni. Plenty of people gave me that and I still did whatever the hell I wanted. If you want that kind of advice, Carl Newport’s Blog is the best place to go. Much better than listening to me.

Firstly, university is not career training, so don’t look for the programme that is going to get you the job that you want, because: a) You don’t know what job you want yet, do you. b) The programme you choose probably won’t help you get it anyway

There are exceptions to this of course; architecture, medicine, engineering & law to name a few. But the vast majority of the worlds work isn’t in one of these categories and far fewer of us are suited to being in them than you’d think. It’s also kind of nuts to have to make a call at 18 to jump into one of the above programmes from the out set. Note, you can always change into one of these programmes later so don’t fret.

What do you think I should do?

I think that most people should enrol in a BA/BSc conjoint at the outset. You get to expose yourself to all kinds of interesting topics that you won’t get much of a chance to look at later in life. These are the sorts of things that make you a great thinker, they shape your brain rather than just fill it. Mathematicians, philosophers, physicist and poets approach the world in interesting, creative and useful ways that the world desperately needs in all fields of work.1

This sort of direction gives you so much flexibility; one of the great things about these programmes is they actually have quite a lot of crossover so you can end up with a very ‘Artsy’ BA/BSc, for example majoring in Art History and Psychology, or a very ‘Sciency’ BA/BSc majoring in Mathematics and Physics. And for what’s more, it’s totally okay to drop out of one of the two degrees after a year without it costing you a thing, lots of people do this with all sorts of programs and no one cares, it just shows you’re focussing on something.

If you really thought you’d actually enjoy a lot of the business school curriculum you can do lots of the cool stuff through the arts programme like Management and Economics. This is often enough to sneak you into one of the postgraduate programme later if you are that way inclined. But by sticking with the Arts and Science programme you get to take many more awesome subjects bound to make you more interesting and happy.

But I still want to learn ‘useful’ stuff at uni?

Personally, I think a commercial education is really important for everyone and I think the university is an awesome place to get one. But I don’t think you need to take a BCom in order to achieve this. My sister would never consider it because she finds me so boring, but others of you might.

Instead of applying for a BCom, I think the best way to learn about business is through some of the awesome clubs run out of the business school. Spark and MCC are two that I can attest to being extremely valuable to my business education, contributing at least as much as my academic studies. What’s more, you definitely don’t need to be in a business programme to contribute in these clubs, in fact the most successful people usually come from outside the business school. Go get involved during your first semester, 4 years later you’ll be rocking a board room with the best of them if that’s where you end up.

What about when I go into the workplace?

Most modern job training is done on the job, this is especially true for junior positions. For example, a marketing degree isn’t going to help you be a good assistant product manager (APM) who spend most of their time working back up the supply chain, getting special pricing and managing stock levels and fulfilment for the sales team. It is however the best path to getting a product management role, which by all definitions is a marketing role. But funnily enough, the person most likely to get the APM role, let alone be good at it, usually doesn’t have a marketing degree.

The guy or girl who got awesome at the APM role, did so because they’re good at learning on the job. This mostly looks like absorbing new ideas and figuring out software, processes and people. Being good at those things has little to do with what you studied and a lot to do with how interested you can be in something… that interested part of you will die if you don’t feed it with something at university.

When I was hiring to replace my position at Lee ter Wal design, our final two candidates were a philosophy student and a solutions architect. This was a marketing strategy role, yet these are the type of people who cut it. Likewise, management consulting firms and investment banks have been doing the same for years.2 Focus on building an interesting brain and becoming someone who could learn and rock any role, we’ll teach you what you need to know when you get here.

What if I just want to guarantee employment?

It’s really out of date for parents (I know it’s you) to suggest studying Accounting or Law so that you always have a ‘skill’ to fall back on. All accountants find work one way or another right? Wrong. It’s total bullshit, not only are there swathes of unhappy lawyers and accountants, there are even more who are unemployed or in another industry, much to their chagrin. There are no where near enough jobs to support the number of graduates each year, so don’t be a sucker unless it really is your dream.3

If you want to guarantee work, go study computer science, or don’t even go to university and attend a technical college instead. Or even just self study if you love it enough. There is such high demand for developers in New Zealand among growing technology firms who are doing awesome work; Orion, Xero and TradeMe all have more positions than they can fill. Do you think Deloitte or PriceWaterHouse Coopers are saying the same? If you care, these guys generally pay more as well, you also get to contribute to the New Zealand weightless export economy - thanks for saving the country.


Fortunately I don’t have to worry about my sister much, last I heard she’s going to study a BA at Auckland University in Philosophy, Art History and English Literature, hopefully she’ll throw in some Physics electives since I know she secretly loves that as well. But, as I did, she’s avoiding the BSc to avoid doing too much mathematics.

Further Reading

Paul Graham - What You’ll wish You’d Known
David Brook - It’s Not About You
Carl Newport - Study Hacks Philosophy

  1. My favourite book on this topic is ‘A Whole New Mind’ by Dan Pink. Explores how he nature of modern work lends itself to ‘right hand side of the brain’ thinking.  ↩

  2. Health Science and a Bioinformatics grads becoming traders, philosophy students heading to McKinsey, not too mention the dozens on engineers heading to similar positions. It’s completely normal. Most of these guys and girls study outside of the business school but get enriched by it through clubs.  ↩

  3. Really, you’ve just finished high school and you can’t imagine anything more interesting in the world than being an accountant? I’ve met a few people who freaking love it, but I’ve met far more who think it’s a safe way to earn a good living. The good living part is true, the safe part no longer.  ↩

We moved to France

Dora has always wanted to go back to France. In 2003 she spent six months in France in a small town called Annecy near the Swiss Alps, and six months in French Quebec in Canada. Even before we started dating nearly 7 years ago she had been talking about going back for something at some point, so I’ve always known we’d come here eventually. I pushed back our departure a couple of times; first to finish my masters and then to serve out a reasonable period at my first real job.

I decided a couple of years ago that I didn’t really believe in long distance relationships. We’ve done a few 3 month stints apart; once when she went South America on a girls trip in 2005, again on a medical exchange to Ghana in 2009 and finally during my 3 month trip around South America in 2010 - longer than this doesn’t feel sensible to me; I’m less productive, less happy and less healthy - those three reasons are enough to avoid it.

Since I’ve always known that Dora would want to come here, and I’ve known for some time that I wouldn’t want to be apart for such a long period, it was always going to be an easy decision to move here when the time came. But to be honest, even if I wasn’t with Dora, I still would have wanted to do a long term trip.

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Kiwi classic: move to London, earn pounds & travel Europe. There’s a lot of Kiwis there for starters so you’re not actually that far from home and you’re not particularly differentiated career wise if you’re that way inclined either.1 Mostly though it doesn’t achieve the one thing that I think a really good destination for a long term stay needs to: is the place significantly different from what you know. For the same reasons I wouldn’t describe working Australia as an ‘Overseas Experience’, I don’t think that the UK should count as such either. It’s just further away and close to some awesome stuff. I’m sure there are lots of cultural differences that you can cite between New Zealand and the motherland, but they pale in comparison to just about anywhere else - arguably even the United States.2

I like that fact that in France, I’m somewhere a little different. It’s good that I have to learn a completely new language to really get to know the place, the people and culture, it’s a steep slope for sure but it feels great. It’s so different cuturally here from New Zealand. For example, this is the most productive economy in the world by hour spent, but instead of working more hours everyone decides to work less. I haven’t met one person pulling more than 40 hours a week and most do 35, this coming from an area surrounding Sofia Antipolis: the Silicon Valley of Europe.

I’m hear to learn some things that I couldn’t get from just doing a ‘bigger economy’ version of what I do back home. They’re harder to see but obviously there, I hope being here will bring a diversity to my thinking that’ll make me better at whatever I do in the future - the second language won’t go amiss either3. I do want to work in a larger economy at some stage, but I’d rather do it for a New Zealand company than get the experience elsewhere - there are exceptions to every rule but at the moment this feels pretty good.

I’m savoring my time as an un-employed, illiterate and semi-mute citizen to get some distance from my day to day life in New Zealand and catch up on reading and thinking. It’s now 38 days since I’ve left New Zealand; I’ve read through a few hundred instapaper articles4 that I had in the queue, read 11 good books5 and soaked up 30 hours of french lessons. All the while meeting some new people and exploring Cote d’Azur. It is beautiful down here after all.

1. Firstly, yes international experience counts for something but that doesn’t need to be in London. You’ll get some empathy from employers who did the same thing, but over all I think this is a weak effect and certainly is less useful than something based on an actual commercial advantage.

2. Nothing useful here, but did you know the US is abbreviated EU here, just to really confuse you (Etats-Unis)

3. My goal for the year is to pass my B1 DELF exam, probably around August. You could call this proficient, something between and beginner and fluent, closer to the former. This is the minimum language requirement for a school like INSEAD that is taught in English but requires a second language.

4. The articles I read and really like get posted on my Tumblr, you can see all the posts I ‘heart’ on Instapaper here. If you like reading long form articles and often find yourself not able to read them because you find them at inconvenient times (like at work), then you should definitely check out Instapaper. Especially if you have an iPad.

5. Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Autobiography, The Start-up of You, The Girl who Kicked the Honet’s Nest, American Gods, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay, Decoded: The Jay Z Autobiography, The Tiger, Power to the People & Superfreakonomics.

Ego, the right answers and project management

What do you care about more when you're giving advice on a project; that they do what you want them to, or that they give you the credit for this decision?

People aren't that great at taking advice, particularly on something that they've worked hard on. I'm not just talking about the hard advice that you need to take to avoid failing - but the mundane stuff in particular, the little details that your hired experts are meant to really get. People want to be responsible for every little bit of what they create, it's normal.

But I'm brought in to give advice, that's why I'm here.

Maybe, they may have even told you that. But there are other reasons people hire experts as well. Sometimes it's rubber stamping for a superior or sometimes they just want part of your offer - people often want to work with designers so they can sit around and talk about pictures and feel cool. Most of the time though they really want you to come in and help them get their own thinking straight. Note: This is not your thinking.

The clinch is that your clients getting good outcomes is core to your reputation and your ability to get future business more than anything else. This makes your client doing smart things really important to you - more important than you giving them advice.

As much as I'd like them to say: "Man, you're right, Angus. I was being dumb, and your idea is way better, lucky I asked you" - that doesn't happen very much in the real world.

Alright, how do you do it in the room?

Pro tip: Get your best and most important ideas on the table really early in the meeting. Say it like you're non commital and mix it with some less specific alternatives.

After that you can drop the idea and proceed with the meeting as usual. Working through the various angles to the challenge, understanding the multiple stakeholders, establishing a decision making process - however you usually work. What we tend to find is that they come to the same idea you mentioned casually in the opening. Usually in the exact same words but with the preface "what I think we should do..."

But I like the part where I'm right

We all do. We also need to demonstrate our value consistently. That can seem hard when you're constantly not taking credit for your own ideas - but the outcomes will speak for themselves.

Also, your client feels smarter when he's around you so he will like you more. This means he's not only more likely to recommend you but also to bring you in on more and more projects.

This all seems manipulative

Yeah, a little bit. But even if you don't want to seed ideas early on in conversation the approach is still the same - you need to get your clients there without telling them the answers for them to truly own it. That means they get to be right, its part of what they get for hiring you.

Pattern Spotting

In my last post I talked about patterned living, and how it speeds up our experience of time and life. Here's a thought experiment I've picked up from Improv Guru Wade Jackson that shows how hard it is to shake patterns from our conscious. Try this:

  1. Get up and walk around. Point at things and name what they are called out loud - don't cheat - you have to point and you have to say it. Do this for 10-20 things. Go now, I'll wait


    Yes, you sounded like an idiot, but you'll find out why soon enough. Now for step two:

  2. Do the same exercise, but this time call them anything that the object is not. If you've got someone around, get them to listen to you do it. Try to use naming words. No pointing at your boyfriend and saying 'anger'. Do it now - and don't forget to actually point.


    Now you're really pulling off the crazy thing. But good on you for doing it. Ask your friend for help, what can you notice about your responses? I bet there was something connecting them all, a pattern in the madness? A few possibilities:

    • You named everything after something else you could see but weren't pointing at. Floor becomes ceiling, chair becomes table, human becomes dog etc.
    • You named everything after something that relates to that object or another object nearby. Computers become stereos, trees become soil etc.
    • You chose a familiar family of nouns and proceeded to name everything after that family. Desk becomes apple, chair becomes orange, person becomes pear etc.

    There are lots of possibilities for how you might have done it, but most people have something. Okay, last one:

  3. Do the same exercise but this time actually try and name another random thing while pointing at different objects in your environment. Go on, I'll wait.


Did you pull it off this time? It usually ends up with you pointing at a bean bag thinking "not bean bag, not bean bag, not beans bag..." head explode. That's how it goes for me anyway. Ask your friend if he's still around how you did. No secret patterns hiding?

Most people I know suck at this. I certainly do. The exceptions I've found are often people who didn't spend a lot of time in formal education or have been out of formal education for a long time and working in the creative sector. Musicians, writers, artists etc.

My main point is that, besides losing our ability to actually think randomly and, in a sense, creatively, we're also tightly bound up in a need to seek, apply and use patterns. Even when when we're told not to, patterned thinking is pervasive. Lots of what we learn at university and what we subsequently do in the workplace is seek patterns and fit our environment and observations to them.

This fails when the patterns we use are broken and we need new ones. And, as I wrote in my previous post, in fails us if we want to live longer as well.

You probably didn't do the exercise, too much pattern breaking to actually step away from the computer, but maybe next time your in a park you can get your friend to do it and comment on how constrained their creativity must be. Don't be a dick about it though.

On Patterns and Dying too soon

Thoughts experiment; what's the most patterned part of your week? This is mine. Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning all look like this:

6:00 Wake up, kick dog out of bed, drive to park and go for a walk.
6:30 Get home, get dressed, eat breakfast with Dora and grab my things.
6:45 Leave house, walk to bus station and ride into the city.
7:15 Get to the gym, get changed, go do my workout and stretch.
8:30 Have a shower, grab a protein shake, walk through Albert park and across town to work.
9:00 Get to work and start my day.

This is exactly how it goes, every time. I also eat the same things for breakfast, wear the same shitty clothes when I walk the dog, drink the same protein shake and do pretty much the same simple workout most days (it's awesome by the way).

The most significant thing about these three hours is that everyday, it passes in an instant. One second my alarm goes off, the next I'm greeting my colleagues. There's probably part of your life that passes like that as well - worst case scenario the majority of your life looks like this and you hardly remember any time passing.

Now think about the most random way you could experience that time period. 3 hours is a long time after all:

6:00 Wake up, drive down to Mission Bay even though it's raining.
6:30 Run along the beach in barefoot, intentionally scaring nonchalant seagulls.
7:00 Jump in the ocean with all your clothes on because you haven't been for a swim in a while
7:30 Go to a cafe that hasn't opened yet and befriend the staff as they arrive - tell an extravagant lie about how you got so wet.
... use your imagination
9:00 Get to work and start my day.

I'm sure there have been days in your lives that have looked as unusual as this. Moments when you realise that the night before feels like a week ago because so many different things have happened.

They say time flies when you're having fun, but I really don't think that's the case. I think the shortest year of your life is the one we're you in the same house with the same job doing the same things week in week out. It sounds like a bore but it really does go quickly. Then think about a year where you move town every three months, settle into a new role, meet new people, navigate a new city, find new clubs - that's a year that feels like it lasts a lifetime.

If you want to live forever I think you've got break the patterns that you live by. Do the little things and walk a different way to work, but try and do some big things as well. That fountain you walk by every day looks alluring. Next time, jump in.

P.S In a few days I'll post a fun exercise on seeing patterns in your on own thinking and a way to practice breaking them

P.P.S You should follow me on twitter

Sucking at (Business) School

They say university is really about learning how to learn. Everyone says it but nobody means it, or at least only with hindsight. No one currently studying is doing so to learn how to learn. So what is your intention?

To get a job that you love, so let's talk about that instead.

If you want to get employed in any industry, the most important thing you can do is be remarkable - someone worth remembering and someone worth talking about. You might get an interview or two based on grades, extra-curricular achievements, looks or personality - but to get hired you need to be special compared to the other candidates. Most people these days want to stand out by looking and sounding smart - this isn't a bad start. Smarts tend to lead you into doing remarkable things.

The only way to be smarter than people is to be really interested in what you do. Those smart people that you knew in primary school - they were just smart because by some fluke, they happened to be interested in what was being taught. There's some genetics and lots of parents who were good at getting kids excited about the right things as well, but mostly, they were interested. So that nerd who could answer everything in class? He used to read "The great book of knowledge" before going to bed... and I liked it.

Ultimately, people look smart because they're so interested in something that they just got good at it.

You may have been cruising because you never found school that interesting - you might even be an 'A' student who didn't give a shit. Maybe it doesn't have to be like that. The law degree that your parents told you to get so you could always get a job, 'have a skill to fall back on' and other lies isn't going to work out that well if you're not interested enough to be in that top quarter of students that actually get a decent job out of it. Even then, surprise! You have to work in an industry that you're not interested in - this sucks.

Now of course this doesn't apply to you, but think for a second how many people you know who are doing something because their parents think it's a good idea... A safe move... A sure thing? When we invest in something by spending lots of time and energy in it, we find ways to rationalise the decisions. You know that guy who's always defending that Android phone he got? These friends of yours might be doing the same thing with their education. Probably with the same reasons their parents gave them.

Any chance this could be you as well? Did you love any of your papers this past semester? Do you remember why you signed up for this programme? What if I told you we'd hire a kickass philosophy student over a BCom Llb kid any day? What if I told you some of the top firms in the world do this all the time as well?1

What matters is how much you can kick ass - all the professional talents you ever need in most jobs is the 101 stuff. I can teach you all the marketing knowledge you need to do my job in about 2 days - it is just hard to use it. You don't solve that challenge by getting a marketing degree though. You solve that by caring passionately and authentically about what you do - whatever that is. You need to relish the complexity of a new problem, get excited by a new idea and be rewarded by understanding something new. If you spend 4 years studying something that bores you - you just forget how to do that.

I sucked at this too. Commerce really seemed like a great idea at the time (management and marketing... how original). But it's funny how when you're in high school you don't really do much to find out what it will be like. Go talk to some some actual students - if I'd done that I might have realized that the majority of people in the field were bored underachievers getting by on smarts (or greed) rather than passion or any sense of enjoyment in working on hard stuff. By some fluke I did actually like a lot of the stuff I was taught, particularly in postgrad. My peers all thought I was weird though... To actually care about the content we were studying.

Like that should be so strange.

1 E.g. Bio-infomatics students who become investment bankers, Philosophy students who work at McKinsey, firms that only hire poets as managers, increasing number of pure engineers in management consulting.