A response to opening keynote by Prof Alastair Summerlee at HERDSA2016, or why I worry that Australian students are pragmatic, pessimistic, and petrified

It was a great opening keynote at the HERDSA conference today by Prof Alastair Summerlee. He covered the ground to which I have already been converted, and how am almost zealously evangelical about it – ‘We have to reshape education for students who live in a globally (hyper) connected world facing problems that have a global impact and need global solutions’ (I paraphrase badly). These same students are influenced and shaped by the global imagining thanks to films, television, pop culture, music, fashion and other such good things. There are then localised responses to these global forces – more focused responses that are not necessarily a resistance to the global but ones that account for local specifies and anxieties. And these often give birth to the dreams and nightmares of these students.

The students in Guelph University in the response to the question of “What should a university be?” answer that it should liberalise society, serve as society’s conscious, and advance ideas. I know little of Canada, and even less of Guelph so I apologise in advance for my simplification. Canada is a country famous for it politeness, and to a large extent as a counter-point to the popular stereotype of the ugly American. Its Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is – I dare say – the first Canadian politician to be popular internationally. I googled “What are Canadians like?” and pretty good. A Chinese migrant to Canada wroteon Quora “living in this country makes one feel as close to being a global citizen as any country on this planet could possibly do.” Thats a pretty good recommendation. So it makes sense that the university students there would want their universities to serve a ‘higher calling’.

What about the students here in Australia?

While there are several commonalities between Australia and Canada, I am not sure that our university students would answer that same question – “What should a university be?” – with such grace. I ask my students why they have come to university and what they hope to achieve in every course I teach. This often leads to discussions about about their hopes, ambitions, and – if nudged enough – contributions to their communities.

Unfortunately, that discussion does not go the Canadian way. Australian students tend to answer in ways that would suggest that they are pragmatic, pessimistic, and petrified. (Of course there are exceptions but I am referring to a general trend).

They are pragmatic in terms of the outcomes they want from the classes and education programs. Teaching in common core courses (shared by 6 degrees), electives, theory-driven courses, and courses – there is one question that I have to answer every time – how is this relevant to getting me the job that I want. And the answer has to demonstratedly immediate. Students make ‘strategic’ decisions to prioritise the courses that are explicitedly about their intended profession – skipping classes to attend optional ‘professional’ activities, asking what was enough to pass the course, and so on. There is also the student on the other side of the same pragmatic fence – the one who wants the highest mark for the sake of having the best looking transcript. The difference between the two students is only the mechanisms by which they think they will snare their jobs; the approach for both is ends-focused pragmatism.

Then there is the emotional state of the students – pessimistic. But they have iPads, fashionable clothes, drink craft beers, so what are they pessimistic about? They are the generation of the budget emergency, vengeful and petty politics, incredible property prices, underemployment, and ‘free-lancing’. They are a generation who have been told that they won’t be able to afford a place to live, that there are less jobs for them, and that they will have to work longer and harder than their parents for a lesser payoff. And we tell them that they are lazy, have it easy, don’t want to work, and Facebook too much. As a student said to me, almost everyday in the newspapers there will be articles lamenting about unaffordable house prices, jobs lost, bickering politicians, while at the same time, there are articles about how difficult it is to manage and motivate millennials – where is the good news? This refrain is repeated over and over. One lecturer told a class of 80 that there were only 6-8 jobs in their profession in their location so only the best will make it, and even then they will have to compete with graduates from other universities . I am sure the lecturers intention was to motivate the students but it had the opposite effect. We spent a lot of time in my class trying to lift the students mood, and show them all the different opportunities in their industry.

This leads to being petrified – which is strongly linked to being pragmatic and pessimistic. To the students mind, the cost of not getting it right is too high. While we talk about innovation and entrepreneurship, the students are often on the other side of the debate wondering what lies beyond the slogans. Its like the word ‘free-lancing’ – its a code for you might be able to make some money some times in the profession that you got your degree in, and the rest of the time you can work in the sharing economy.

It is not their fault – its ours.

Its too easy to blame the millennials. But its not like they came to existence in a vacuum. No. They are our kids, our nephew and nieces, they are our friends’ kids, they are our audiences, our consumers. We have to take responsibility for what we have helped create – their mindset. I have been called an apologist and an enabler for the millennials. So be it.

There are many reasons why the students have the mindset I wrote about above, but I want to focus on our Australian imagining. And that where the differences between the Canadian and Australian imaginings screamingly diverge.

I moved to Australia in 2001 and my memories of the my early years here are children overboard, Tampa, 9-11, the Bali bombing, the Pacific solution, and the Australian Defence Force (who have been on a war footing since 2001) going into Afghanistan. Since then the continued demonising of refugees, Muslims, those horrid people who want to do something about climate change, Julia Gillard (women in general), globalisation and so on. The long discussions on interest rates, housing prices, petrol and milk prices – lamentations of how hard things are – how do these help in national imagining. Australia was the only country in the OECD to come out of the GFC well, but you would not know this if you were listening to the chattering classes.

The national imagining of Australia is one built on fear and is fired by the selfish and petty discourse of politicking. And then we ask why our students – who have grown up in this miasma – are pessimistic and petrified, while being instrumentalist and pragmatic about their education.

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. Usually, thoughts are have gestated, the writing itself has not. It is essentially a first and only draft – proofread once – if at all. If there are mistakes, you feel it necessary to address my mistakes, or challenge what I say, I would appreciate that .

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Book Review: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

What is the book about?

This is the autobiography of a man born into slavery who was separated from his mother early as slaves were. He writes about the ways which slaves were treated by their owners. When he is older, he is sent off to Baltimore to serve another family. There he teaches himself to read. When his master dies, Fredrick is valued as livestock to be divided as other property. He ends up with a man known as the negro-breaker. Eventually, the two men have a face off – this leads to s series of events and Fredrick ends up in Baltimore again. This time he learns a trade which then leads to both challenges and opportunities. Eventually, he runs away and becomes a well known orator and abolitionist.

Why should I read the book?

There are many reasons to read this book. But instead of telling you why, I want you to read this paragraph below. I think it tells you exactly why we should read this book.

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren. –

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass

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Reading Challenge 2016 – Update

As the mid-point of 2016 arrives, its time to review my mission to read 52 books in 52 weeks in 2016. I have been documenting them as I read them on my Goodreads page, as well as on my Instagram account (#terryreadingchallenge). (Goodreads has a nifty ‘year in books‘). I am on track to hit my 52 books for the year, and a new Amazon parcel has just arrived 🙂

This is the list for the year so far.

  1. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew 5
  2. Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United by Alex Ferguson 4
  3. Narrative of Sojourner by Truth Sojourner 3
  4. The Nonexistent Knight by Italo Calvino 4
  5. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino 4
  6. The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino 4
  7. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass4
  8. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad 4
  9. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee 4
  10. Essential: Essays by The Minimalists by Joshua Fields Millburn 1
  11. Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson 4
  12. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs 4
  13. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey 3
  14. The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City by Luther Campbell 3
  15. The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas 4
  16. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan 5
  17. On The Shortness Of Life: De Brevitate Vitae by Seneca 4
  18. Smegma by Elangovan 1
  19. Advice to My 18-Year-Old Self by Colin Wright 3
  20. Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists by Joshua Fields Millburn 4
  21. When Singapore Fell: Evacuations And Escapes, 1941 42 by Joseph Kennedy 2
  22. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport 5
  23. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis 4
  24. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo 4
  25. The Battle for Singapore: The True Story of the Greatest Catastrophe of World War II by Peter Thompson 5

(5 – worth multiple reads, 4 – a must read!, 3 – worth the read, 2 – meh!, 1 – run head first into a brick wall, it’s better entertainment.)

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My 2015 in books

As 2015 comes to a close, its time to review my mission to read 52 books in 52 weeks in 2015. I have been documenting them as I read them on my Goodreads page, as well as on my Instagram account. (Goodreads has a nifty ‘year in books‘)

Below are the books that I rated 5 because I enjoyed them very much, and that I want to reread. I have added  some that I rated 4  because I have referred to them often in class or in conversation. They are all worth reading if you have not already.

  • The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking  – Oliver Burkeman
  • The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
  • Why Orwell Matters – Christopher Hitchens
  • Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life – Eric Greitens
  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love – Cal Newport
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  • The Year of the Runaways – Sunjeev Sahota
  • Satin Island – Tom McCarthy
  • Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions – -Dan Ariely
  • The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph – Ryan Holiday
  • Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative – Ken Robinson
  • The Wife Drought – Annabel Crabb
  • Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness – Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein
  • A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – William B. Irvine

Here’s a numbers listicle from my 2015 books.

  • 1 – number of people who read the least read book on my Goodreads
  • 3.6 – my average rating for books read
  • 4 – books I rated 2 stars
  • 6 – number of books I gave up on
  • 4.21 – highest Goodreads rating for a book read
  • 10 – books I rated 5 stars
  • 11 – memoirs/biographies read
  • 17 – fiction books read
  • 24 – books I rated 4 stars
  • 25 – books I rated 3 stars
  • 32 – numbers of pages of shortest book read
  • 63 – number of books read
  • 282- average number of pages per book read
  • 515 – number of pages of longest book read
  • 1933 – earliest publication year read
  • 15,779 – total number of pages read
  • 1,364,978 – number of people who read the most read book on my Goodreads


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Book Review: The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

What is this book about?

This book is about four people who have ended up connected and intertwined in each others lives. The book is a the story of the contemporary migrant experience especially the recent wave of the low end of middle-class Punjabi migration into places like Australia, and the UK. Two of the main character are male Sikhs – Avatar and Randeep – who have come to the United Kingdom legally – one as a student and the other as a Visa marriage. Avatar and Randeep are neighbours that are connected to each other through Avatar’s on-the-quiet girlfriend. The third character is a young man from Bihar – Tarlochan- which is a code that only is explained in the later part of the book for those who don’t understand Indian society. He has left India not only because he is the poorest, but also because he has nothing to left to stay for. He has made it to the UK illegally in trains and trucks. The fourth character – Narinder – is a woman who is born and raised in the UK, but whose life is the performance of piety and sanctity that no longer a part of modern India. Her journey to actualisation is the site where the three men fight their fights .

The book started in Sheffield, with the three men living in house with other Punjabi men working illegally, and living hard. The book moves seamlessly through the shorter chapters in the UK and longer chapters about the lives in India. The second part of the book is where the four lives intertwine as things get more fraught and desperate. They compromise their values becoming selfish and eventually stealing – whatever it took to stay alive and try to eke out a survival.

Why should I read this book?

Given the contemporary debates about migration, Sahota provides some light of the stories behind the tabloid headlines of job-stealing migrants, visa abusers, fake students, and other various ‘illegals’. The book itself is very well written. While it is an ‘Indian Book’, its not overwhelmed with descriptions or untranslated words – its a strongly underwritten books. A lot takes place in the interstices of the words, as it does in the smaller adjuncts in the story. While dealing with grimness and the actions of the worst of humanity when dealing with the powerless, as well as the actions of desperate men, Sahota lets the reader make the decisions on how they feel about it. And this makes it that much more emotional for the reader. Narinder is the proxy for so many of us with intentions of goodness, and well-meaning. She challenges us to move beyond the performance of piety and goodness. She examines her religiosity – to take her cue from its Gurus, or from its societal and institutional forms. The book is not just useful to understand the contemporary migrant experience, but for us – the privileged readers – to listen to our inner Narinder.


Migrant stories from India -things are bad – to UK – things are worse. Get worser. Everyone survives in their own way.

A photo posted by Terry Johal (@terryjohal) on

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The how of a speech

In a recent post, I wrote about creating a elevator speech. While that post covers the what of a speech, someone asked me about the how of a speech. So here is a quick post on the how of a speech. I will find some time soon to write a post on my thoughts on both speaking and listening.

[ted id=2034]

[ted id=1569]

Bonus: If you are  interesting in mindfulness, I really like Tara Brach’s video on Mindful Speech.

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Creating an elevator speech

A elevator speech is a short speech – usually of 30 seconds – that is a pitch to an accidental meeting in an elevator with someone whom one wants to make an impression on. The objective is to not to deliver information about yourself or your projects, but rather to entice the other party to continue the conversation outside the elevator, or at minimum, exchange business cards. That is vital – more storytelling, and less information.

How do you build an elevator speech? Use the following as a guide.

  1. Why? There must be a reason that motivates you to make that speech, and an objective that you hope to achieve. This is help to give you speech a focus.
  2. Who are you? Most people seem to forget to prepare this part. Since most social interactions start with salutations, it means that when you do deliver the speech, that start is stilted and unsure. So when writing, you include a greeting and an identification. Also, when practicing your speech, use role-playing to get acclimatise yourself for the entire interaction.
  3. So what? This is the main purpose of the speech. Remember that you are trying to entice the other person, and as such, need to speak from a place of passion and authenticity. If you are not bursting from the awesomeness of your idea, why would anyone else. An elevator speech is about selling, so you need to be comfortable with that. And as long as you believe in what you are selling, channel your passion, and speak in your own voice, you will do well.
  4. To whom? Right, so you are passionate and authentic, but you are still talking to one person. Always keep that in mind. It is not about you, but what you are offer the listener. So craft the speech to entice that person. Importantly, you are trying to entice them with your idea, not impress them with your vocabulary. Leave the embellishments and bluster for another day, keep the language simple and the focus precise.
  5. Test and Practice. You should record yourself when practising your elevator speech. Listen to your vocal inflections and disfluencies. While you want it to sound like a conversation, and not an overly rehearsed scripted recitation, there is a degree of performance to it.
  6. Create a next action. Remember that this is a conversation (albeit a starter), so having a next action is important. This could mean an exchange of name-cards, which then allows you to follow up via email, a solicitation of their opinions on your key idea (no. 3), or even to just continue the conversation. This varies depending on the context, and the circumstances of the meeting. The key is to get them to engage with you, to contribute to the conversation.

When writing a speech, keep in mind the following;

  • It is a speech, so even though you are writing it, you need to make it conversational. So practise and testing is vital.
  • Keep the language simple and clear. Avoid jargon, slang, or institutional language.
    Humanise your language. You are writing about yourself so be authentic. Write naturally.
  • End strong and have a purpose. There is no next time, so don’t leave them wanting more. Just give it to them.

Bonus: Think about being at a dinner party and one of the guests asks you, “what do you do?” Can you answer in one sentence such that they understand what you do?

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Book Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

What is this book about?
Caitlin Doughty’s memoir of her time working in a crematorium has the thesis that we need to stop denying the physicality of death, and go back to incorporating death into our lives. She writes about her experience working with death bodies from retrieving them in a van, preparing them for viewing, their cremation, and the retrieval of the ashes. The book is peppered with gristly details about embalming, decomposition, desquamation, putrefaction, liquefaction, and other such words. Doughty is unsentimental and unrelenting in her descriptions, but it isn’t voyeuristic. Rather it is to demystify the funeral process – and it is an industrialised process. That’s part of her lament – the commodification of death and its sanitisation from our experience. Further to that, the funeral industry itself is part of the problem – up-selling funerals with unnecessary adornments, metal caskets, elaborate wreaths, and embalming.

Why should I read this book?
I read this book soon after I read The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman, in which the last chapter was Memento Mori – in a strange way, it was a great continuation of looking at death as a way of life. She founded The Order of The Good Death – ‘a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality’. (She has been running a Youtube channel ‘Ask A Mortician‘ since 2011.) The book is a memoir of her journey to becoming a mortician, as well as a study of the different death rituals from different times and from different cultures. Doughty wants us to bring death and the dead back into our lives – washing and preparing the bodies of our dead – instead of outsourcing our death rituals, and distancing ourselves from the process. This book is worth a read, especially if you are rethinking your post-death options, or a just interested to know what happens to your mortal coil once you have passed on.

Memoir-manifesto-study of death, death rituals, and of working as a mortician.

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At least, he did not shit in my car – a stoic mindset

We cannot choose our external circumstances,
but we can always choose how we respond to them.
Epictetus, The Enchiridion

(continued from previous post)

One of the axiomatic phrases that I live by is – tomorrow this will be a funny story. It is an attempt to put some perspective on whatever I am experiencing at that time. So in the weeks after the break into my car, I was telling the story to friends and others, with the punchline – hey, at least he did not shit in my car.

This usually lead to 2 types of reactions from people; first was that I was a glass half full kind of guy, and the second was frustration at the lack of anger on my side. The second reaction was a real surprise to me.

I do not think of myself as a glass half  full type, and I think many of the people around me would say the same. As a stoic, I try to practice negative visualisation as much as I can. At the risk of oversimplification, negative visualisation is about the contemplation of catastrophe, of which death would be the worst outcome. The Stoics talk about contemplating that you will never see your friends again when you wave them farewell, or to contemplate your children’s death when you kiss them good night. Negative visualisation would be a contemplation of everyday life which could end quite unceremoniously at any moment. Seneca writes that when one contemplates catastrophes, robs them of their power. I also think that this practice helps one to anticipate and potentially avoid catastrophes as well.

It did not, however, help me avoid having my car broken into.

It did mean that I could continue my day, doing the things I needed to do, meeting the people I was going to meet, without any significant distress or unhappiness. It meant that I still owned my day. And that was something powerful and productive. When  something bad happens, it can often derail our plans, and our ambitions. This could be for a day, a week, or as long as we allow it to. To me, this practice of negative visualisation has become part of my approach to being productive.

The second reaction – others’ frustrated at my lack of anger – is puzzling to me. I still don’t quite know what it means. I got the sense that it wasn’t frustration on my behalf, but frustration at me. Perhaps I had disappointed them by not reacting in a manner, that to them, was expected and normal. Perhaps I had cheated them out of an opportunity for mutual outrage on the evils of society. Or perhaps it is because, as one friend says, I am a pod person.

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Book Review: The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need by Daniel Pink

What is this book about?
This is manga about a young man who has begun his job after leaving university. He is struggling and lacking in motivation in his job. A life coaching angel comes his way who he can then summon by breaking disposable chopsticks! She gives him six chopsticks and each time he breaks one, she turns up to give him one axiom of wisdom. Each axiom helps him take the next step of his career, but but this step inevitably needing to break another chopstick to get another axiom to help him out of that career crisis. By the end of the book he has six axioms, and a clear sense of what he once in his career.

Why should I read this book?
I really enjoyed Daniel Pink’s book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us, so was looking forward to reading this one. Plus it’s a manga. I read this book more as a resource for students, rather than a book for me. So I will review it in that spirit. It is a good starting point for thinking about what it takes to be successful in one’s career, beyond one’s technical abilities. While this book in of itself, would not provide much grist for the mill, it is a useful starting point for university students and people very early in their career. Think of it as a kickstart. A further reading list at the end of the book would have been useful.

A simple and useful manga style career guide for university students and those early in their career. 4 stars

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