In Defence of History*

It is being (increasingly) observed that Oxbridge historians swell the ranks of influential Brexiteers. For example:
My undergraduate degree was History. At Cambridge. And so I feel a touch defensive. 
I loved my undergraduate degree, finding it enormously stimulating to be challenged constantly by both amazing academics and contemporaries to think, and think hard. But while the degree isn’t a course in applied contrarianism, it is fair comment that contrarianism is respected and can be academically well-rewarded. (Brits of a certain age might remember Newman and Baddiel’s History Today, which was funny because it contained a germ of truth.)

For the uninitiated, the first year of History at Cambridge consisted (in my day) of three ‘Survey’ courses and a translation paper (for example, my first term was British Constitutional and Political History 1868-1990). Each Survey course consisted of eight weeks. Each week would see your supervisor set an essay question on something about which you had zero knowledge. Zero.
If you were lucky (and in my first term I was very lucky) your supervisor would suggest texts (books and journal articles) that you might usefully gut en route to building your argument. Not a book or two, but maybe twelve books and ten journal articles: more than could be read, let alone read and noted, by anyone over the course of a week. Footnotes and references in these texts could then open other avenues of reading taking you down interesting or less interesting paths of inquiry.

You could also build a strategy of absorbing information through lectures if you wished (lecture courses would be eight weeks long and might/ might not overlap with some aspect of a Survey course). 

Regardless of your strategy, around 150 hours after the essay title that you had been set was revealed, you had to submit a 2,000-3,500 word text. 167 hours after the ‘reveal’ you had to defend your argument against someone who had spent their adult life becoming a world expert on the topic about which you knew nothing a week before. Points awarded for cogency of argument, dealing with the literature, originality, etc.

OK, you’ll agree that this sounds fun. But getting back to the ‘Oxbridge Historians are nutters’ meme for a second, I think it is fair to say that along the way a History undergraduate (via trial by ordeal) gets:

  1. Pretty good at processing large amounts of material in an unreasonably short amount of time;
  2. Pretty good at drawing from this large amount of material a reasonably compelling and structured view (of variable quality);
  3. Pretty good at written exposition and verbal debating on matters about which they are only seven days in from cluelessness.

This is not really the *point* of the first year of a Cambridge History degree. And it is not all that an individual gets. But – perhaps unlike many other degrees – History doesn’t punish over-confidence. At undergraduate level I would argue the opposite. The sort of characteristics observed in Rafael Behr’s polemical opinion piece in the Guardian would not be beaten out of a History undergraduate but could feasibly enhance their bearers’ prospects.

Might other degrees or time in the world of work deliver these skills? Almost certainly given that the skills are not specific to folks who studied history at Oxbridge. Insofar as I picked up these skills, it was during my History undergraduate degree.

As to the notion that an Oxbridge History degree inculcates the bearer with a notion of British exceptionalism, this seems off – at least from a Cambridge perspective. The only notion with which I found myself inculcated was that History has ontological/ epistemological complexities that are *very much a thing*. 

During my degree, when meeting students from Europe or the US, they would typically ask whether I wanted to be a History teacher. There are some truly awesome history teachers out there, but it has not (yet) been my ambition to join their ranks. When I tried to explain that in the UK a History degree is understood as a general training of the mind they didn’t all laugh. Nor should they have.

*No, not the past. The undergraduate degree.

20 years in

It was twenty years ago today that I began working in fund management. 
What advice would I offer someone starting out in the industry, based on my experience? I’ve spent a good few tube journeys pondering this question, and this is my best effort.

1. Treat the job as if you are lucky to have it, because you are.

    There are many wonderful people with brilliant minds who will never get the opportunity to sit in your seat. Somehow, you’re sitting here. This is an amazingly fabulous opportunity. Do something with it, and don’t waste it.

    2. You can never truly *know* the mixture of luck and judgement attached to your results. 

    As @xkcd puts it:

    This is a big big deal, and will likely gnaw away at your insides if you are at all reflective, no matter how successful you are. (If it doesn’t, check that you haven’t got Dunning-Kruger syndrome.) Use this doubt to humble you, especially when things are going very well. Make sure that you do a really good job on the things that are absolutely within your control (the careful implementation of your investment process; well-prepared, respectful and unpatronising interactions with, and attitudes towards, clients; strong risk management, etc). And read this piece by @ericlonners.

    3. Despite #2, learn quickly that Every Job is a Sales Job.

    This was an absolute shock to me on leaving university. Nicely expressed in this thread.

    But also worth recalling one of my boss’s mantras here: 90% of life is about managing expectations. You live with the consequences of your sale (to others and to yourself); by over-selling you raise the bar that you must clear in order to not fail.

    4. Pick a good boss.

    This is hard when you’re starting out and literally know nothing about your boss and know nothing about what makes a good boss. So while your first boss will be a bit pot luck, choose your second carefully. Think about the values you have and how these are reflected in your boss; think about the way your boss succeeds or doesn’t succeed. You absolutely don’t need to share the same political, social or religious views, but you must be able to respect them professionally. If your boss doesn’t get some *core* stuff (personal integrity, centrality of the client etc) then change your boss. 

    5. Don’t (over)-job hop.

    You need a really good reason to not stick out your first job for at least two years. It is possible that you will be given mindlessly basic grunt work for two years. No biggie. You are being paid to learn: take every opportunity to do so.

    You may find an earnings or opportunity jump occurs each time you do change firms, but your ability to jump diminishes over time. No one will want to employ someone who has a history of not sticking around. Try moving internally rather than externally if it’s a role thing. (Once you’ve spent a long stretch with one firm this doesn’t apply so much.)

    6. When you have worked out what you think, make sure that you take enough risk on your view.

    You have the potential to lose your job with every decision* that you make, but it helps no-one if you make good judgements and their impact is insufficient to really make much difference.

    *(Don’t worry, you won’t be allowed to make many decisions until that time when you are competent to make them if you have a half-decent boss.)

    7. There is a part of you that will *become* your job/ profession.

    We don’t come out of the womb as accountants, psychiatrists, fund managers, journalists, etc. And we spend our formative years building an identity which may not ‘fit’ with our target profession. But after years of pretending to be the sort of person who is a finance professional you will find that you aren’t pretending anymore. If you can make peace with this early, you will have a better time of things. Incidentally, Hashi Mohamed did an awesome Radio 4 documentary on social mobility which I thought was a masterclass on extreme adaptability. Listen to it here

    8. Never Ever say that we live in unprecedented times.

    Stuff happens all the time. And the incidence of stuff is no excuse for doing a bad job for your clients; in fact it is the successful navigation of these that will add value to your clients. In my 20 years the following stand out: the Asian crisis, the Russian default, LTCM, Brazilian depeg, Dotcom boom/ bust, Argentina crisis, 9/11 and War on Terror, Brazilian electoral crisis, Worldcom/ Enron/ Anderson client crisis, Gulf War, all that stuff that is generally wrapped up into the Global Financial Crisis, the European sovereign debt crisis, Commodity meltdown/ deflation, Anglo-Saxon populist electoral wave. Each of these (and many others) felt like they could be fairly existential for markets on which I was professionally focused. Each was heralded as unprecedented. And each was. But navigating frequent unprecedented events is … er … the job. I don’t buy that the last twenty years is particularly challenging in the broader sweep of history. If a particular couple of decades further back in time look relatively calm I would suggest that this probably signals a lack of curiosity of the past.

    9. Read books.

    My job involves reading a lot of documents. Downtime consists in reasonable part of reading documents that I don’t have time to read during work time but feel I should read, or think might be useful to read. I could fill every hour of every day doing this and not read all that I think I should read. The idea of squeezing in time to read some professionally irrelevant book is not always appealing. (In fact, there seems to be no time.) But make room for books. Books get inside your head, and great books will touch on themes that are recurrently relevant. There are people way more professionally successful than I will ever be who find time to fit in reading a book or two a week. I read at least twelve a year. It’s a start.

    10. Don’t stop asking silly (but relevant) questions.

    The more you know, the more you know you don’t know, as the saying goes. But try to work out where you can get away with asking them.

    And finally, some advice I would offer, not based on experience? Learn to code.