What would you say to your High School Alumni ?

November 2019

This is a real question I posed on Linkedin – and copied in below below – as I was going to to talk at a formal dinner in London to alumni of Winchester College, (where I was at school from 1979-84).

Below is a transcript of my speech. – I’m particularly happy to have been able to weave quotations from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Banarama and Shelley’s Ozymandias into the same speech.

(So this was the speech I intended to give. I am sure along the way a few differences crept it. But it’s close to the original.)
The motivations of an entrepreneur

I live in Krakow, Poland where the rush hour traffic is terrible, the Supreme Court is battling with the government, and some of our politicians are hostile to immigrants and the EU…. so I thought “Let’s see how things are in London……  the civilised peace and tranquility of British politics – it’s bound to be better.


As well as being a businessman, I promote and teach entrepreneurship in University and Schools though not at Win Coll (for reasons out of my control). I have a good idea of what talks by entrepreneurs often look like.   Some entrepreneurs just go on about how marvellous they are, and the adventures they’ve had, and how much money they’ve made.

Others more intelligently do a “humble brag” where they give credit to their good fortune, talk about their failures, while quietly drawing attention to their successes wealth and other achievements.  I’m not going to do that- though I will answer questions if you have them.

 I’m going to talk about my motivations, mindset and attitude to legacy and impact, and explain why it might be relevant to you. 

My motivations have changed since I was at Win Coll – initially they were negative motivations and competitive rivalry. I grew up with a sense of genetic destiny and frustration – my parents came from “good families” – My father had been a Scholar in College at Winchester and taught Philosophy at Oxford. His family tree goes back to 1040, including powerful church men such as John Randolph  – Bishop of London, (though he was not an entrepreneurial bishop, the richest man in the land, like William of Wykeham). My mother’s family included her Uncle, another Wykehamist, Air Marshall Lord Portal (who was received Ad Portas), with a statue on the banks of the Thames or her grandfather Frederick Anderson who played football for Scotland, was in charge of Shanghai, and endowed the library at SOAS. But rather than giving me a sense of something to live up to – I noticed that my parents didn’t have enough money for me to live like other Wykehamists seemed to, and home life seemed a struggle for them to put me and my siblings through Winchester, and other private schools. One of my motivations to make money in business was that I didn’t want my life to be a financial struggle like their’s. 

When I was working in consulting after Cambridge, one Sunday morning I looked round the office, and saw men 20, 30 and 40 years older than me – I knew I didn’t want to be where they were in my future life.  Two examples of the power of a negative motivation. 
As Christmas approaches, you will for sure hear the lyrics Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, whether you enjoy them or not,  including  “All of the other Reindeer used to laugh and call him names, they wouldn’t let poor RudolphJoin in any Reindeer games”.  
That has an echo of some of the less happy memories of my time at school.  A favourite cartoon of mine shows a happy looking Rudolph sitting in his armchair,, shotgun by his side, with the heads of Cupid, Comet, Dasher, Dancer, Vixen, Donner and Blitzen mounted on the wall, with the caption “all of the other Reindeers’ used to laugh and call him names”.


Another of my motivations for going into business was the desire to demonstrate that I could be competitively successful and “win” in the game of life. These motivations, may have been powerful but they were mistaken.

This is not to say I regret not shooting my Wykehamical rivals –  I never shot anyone  – but I’ve come to see that it was ultimately futile to let my relative success in the eyes of others, or lack of it,  be a source of satisfaction or happiness. There will always be someone who does better than me, or beats your record.


So if not negative motivations or competitive rivalry then what? Perhaps impact and legacy.  In the Villa Borghese Gardens in Rome there are so many statues you lose count, The more important Italians, Garibaldi, Gallileo have bigger statues, with better views of Rome. But the people after who the statues are named, don’t know and don’t care. I’m reminded of Shelley’s Ozymandias, whose inscription on a shattered pedestal commands

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair”     

But we never know what who this King of Kings was, what his works were, why the mighty should look on them, and why they should despair.
Whatever I or you achieve will one day be lost and forgotten, so perhaps the quest for legacy is just a form of vanity.  Which is not to say that positive impact now is not important. 

When I was at Winchester, in 1982, Banarama and the Fun Boy Three sang almost literally ad nauseum “It ain’t what you do. it’s the way that you do it”.  This now reminds me of our school motto “Manners maketh Man”.  

There is something in this – even if I make a great fortune.  Would I really enjoy the trappings of wealth and luxury if they were built on human suffering, or criminality. They are partially right, the way we do things does matter, but unlike Banarama, I think what you choose to do matters as well as how you do it.

The failures and successes in my business and personal life have led me to the following conclusions about entrepreneurship – bearing in mind that these rules work for me when I broadly feel I’ve probably made “enough” in the way of assets and money. Different people have different senses of “enough”. Entrepreneurs are important and necessary to create wealth, and bring technological progress into the goods, services and societies we live in.   But we entrepreneurs are just as dependent on government and services from others as others are dependend on entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs need accountants, lawyers doctors, and teachers, and good government.   My 30 years in Poland has taught me the value of good government and institutions that I used to take for granted in the UK, especially as in Poland the pace of progress is accelerating not least due to our membership of the Single Market and enthusiastic support for the European Union and by the vast majority of the population.
Entrepreneurship is a mindset where you take responsibility for your own circumstances, and shape the world in which we live.    An entrepreneurial mind set is not the monopoly of entrepreneurs – it potentially available to everyone who chooses to have it. It means being tolerance of change, open to new ideas, ready to risk failure and rejection.

I failed completely to get an entrepreneurship society going for Win Coll Alumni and current students, Even though Eton has one that thrives, and the society I launched for for Cambridge University less than three years ago has managed to have gatherings in Dubai, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, New York, Sidney and Warsaw, and launches in Cambridge later this week. This isn’t the time to highlight the person those who blocked and opposed this at Win Coll, but I don’t think William of Wykeham would have approved. 

The point I do want to make is that is that my biggest impacts in my life so far have been achieved in collaboration with others and almost always working on and developing other people’s ideas. I failed to get Win Coll on board for my idea, and that’s my failure too.  

That is quite humbling.
Impact matters more than legacy, and that often involves me being less involved not more. 

So if it is not about impressing others, not revenge, not legacy, nor ego, being smug and self-satisfied, what motivates me now, and might I recommend to you? After I got divorced in 2003, the scale of that failure put other things into perspective. I had to get used to waking up in a house by myself in the  50% of my life when my children were with their mother. I learned that the person who you should aim to impressed is the one who looks you in the mirror morning and evening when you are doing your teeth. Friends, family & others come and go but you will always be where ever you are. When you do your teeth in the morning, are you happy with the plan you have for your day, and assuming you brush do teeth twice a day when you look back on your day in the evening: are you happy with what you did? It’s that honest self-assessment that really matters. Are you spending your precious life in the best way possible, and if not what are you going to do about it? 
You can reduce the role of luck by being ready for opportunities. The army has “combat readiness inspections”  which assess if the fighting unit is  ready for war now.  I want to argue for working on you “opportunity readiness”,. You should  assess yourself for your  readiness for opportunity,. Why is this important? You never know when your biggest opportunities will come. It may be like something glinting or sparkling on the edge of your field of vision.  If you are looking out for it,  and you are ready –  you can seize the chance, but you can’t if you don’t notice, or you are not ready.  How ready are you right now for a great opportunity that might emerge, even today, during the break  at this dinner? Are there gaps between where you are now, what you think and do, who you spend time with,  and how it needs to be to be opportunity ready ?  You can work on getting ready. 

Starting with your health,  skills and  finances, Are you looking after yourself: diet, fitness and  so on . Are  your skills and education where they need to be to be opportunity ready? Are your finances in order ?  Are you spending less than you make, and avoiding consumption on credit to impress people you don’t even like.

Are your relationships opportunity ready? , will your partner,  husband or wife hold you back or encourage you when opportunity knocks Maybe your partner is supportive, cherish them and if not – I’m really sorry. My father use to  say to new his students at Oxford University where he taught,  “You will learn more from each other than me” This advice is good for life. Choose who you spend your time with carefully.   

Is your mindset “Opportunity Ready “ is your radar switched on?  When you see a problem,  are you curious,  looking for causes, and  solutions?

The bigger the problem,  the bigger the opportunity.   

Do you intentionally expose yourself to new people, activities and ideas, getting out of your familiar environment, talking to strangers, getting out of your comfort zone.  The more diverse your experiences are, the more opportunities you will be exposed to. Most of my biggest opportunities came as a result of me risking rejection when I offered or asked to get involved in other people’s project. and when people approached me, and asked me if I wanted to join their business and/or projects, they risked me saying no to them.  

And in terms of my motivation. I push myself hard,  if I am passing my own toothbrush test, happy with my plan at the beginning of the day, and satisfied with how it went at the end. that’s a success in my own terms, and plenty of motivation to do the same the next day.

Thank you.   
<end of speech>

Those who follow what I say closely will notice some overlap between what I said to the Old Wykehamists and to the audiences of Talk’n Roll and TEDxTarnow. There are are links to those talks (and another) below.

Meanwhile. I’m reflecting on the fact that I’m more known for putting other speakers’ ideas and entrepreneurs on stage, hosting and organising TEDxKazimierz and other events. Except when teaching/talking about entrepreneurship, I’m don’t often share my non-business ideas. Feedback I got from listeners (often positive 🙂 was that they were surprised, saw a different side of me, so … here are three examples of non-business talks from the last year.

Talk’nRoll

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Why you should embrace rejection” at Sabre’s Talk’nRoll conference in Kraków a few weeks ago.

2 TEDxTarnow

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On “What you need to change if you want to change the world” and the concept of “Opportunity Readiness”.

3. Krakow Polytechnic

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Just over a year ago, the inaugural lecture to students starting their Civil Engineering studies at Krakow Polytechnic “Is 2018 is the best time to start being a student?”. (answer, yes, if you know how). This talk was in Polish, and there is a transcript in this blog post.

Call to Action

What would you say to your high school if you have 20 minutes before a decent meal and what would you want/not want to hear from someone else ? Please write in the comments below.

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