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My Clare College "Alumnus of the Year" speech

In 22 minutes I explained why I do what I do in retirement, gave the students five key pieces of advice, and explained why I regard it as so important to support Clare College financially.

Summary

Delivered 10 February 2014. Posted 8 March 2014.

The formal presentation of the Clare College Alumnus of the Year award is made at Half Way Hall. That is a dinner for the second year students, held half way through the academic year. Since most Cambridge degrees have three years of study, for most students the dinner is also exactly half way through their time at Cambridge. It took place on Monday 10 February.

Ever since I learned in September 2013 that I had been selected as Clare College's Alumnus of the Year 2014, I have been thinking about what to say in my speech. I realised after I had delivered the speech just how much I cared about it, because I felt completely drained by the stress of giving it. The reason is that the occasion was a time to reflect on the 40+ years since I left Cambridge and explain what I consider important in life.

The 22 minute speech was recorded and can be watched below. It is in three main parts, with a close by the Master.

  1. Introduction, what I do now, and why I do it.
  2. Five pieces of advice for the second year students.
  3. The importance of giving to the college.
  4. Close by the Master, Professor Tony Badger.

I had a written text, which I have amended to ensure that it matches what I said. That is reproduced lower down.

Alumnus of the Year 2014 from Clare Alumni on Vimeo.

Written text of speech

Introduction, what I do now, and why I do it.

Master, fellows, members of the college, guests. I wanted to follow with “lend me your ears” but I think somebody has used that before!

Lawyers are often accused of charging by the word. The same complaint is even made occasionally about tax advisers. But Clare College isn’t paying for this speech!

Accordingly I have kept it as brief as I reasonably can, consistent with saying what I absolutely am burning to share with you.

Continuing the plagiarism theme, like Gaul, this speech is divided into three parts:

  1. First of all I want to talk about what I do, and more importantly why I do it.
  2. Secondly I am technically old enough to be the grandfather of the second year students. This gown itself is over 40 years old. And I can’t resist giving people some advice. It’s one of the things I do anyway.
  3. And finally, in the language of American television, there is a word from our sponsor.

So what do I do, and why do I do it?

I was tempted to tell you the story of my life. But I’m so fascinating that even one of Fidel Castro’s seven-hour speeches wouldn’t really be long enough!

If you want to know more about me, all you have to do is visit my website mohammedamin.com. But I will need to tell you a little bit about myself to explain what I do and why I do it.

By all objective measures I had a deprived childhood.

My parents were very poor. I grew up in the slums of Manchester in Chorlton on Medlock and then Moss Side. My parents spoke very little English and they were illiterate. In my entire school career I did not go on a single foreign trip. The same is true when I was at University. In fact I didn’t leave the UK until my first overseas work trip at about the age of 30.

Despite these objective measures, all my life I have been conscious of being blessed.

The reality is that, despite the objective deprivation, I had an idyllic childhood. Both of my parents doted on me. Everything that I asked for, if they could possibly afford it, they gave me. From the time that I could read properly, my father regularly ferried me to libraries.

I never had to work at home. I was never expected to get a job while I was studying. And every waking hour was spent enjoying myself, either with friends or watching television or reading.

As well as having parents who doted on me, I was blessed with my genetic endowment. I was born with a bright IQ. I can’t claim any credit for that; it’s just something I was born with. At school my teachers lavished attention on me because I wanted to learn, while sadly most of my classmates really didn’t want to learn. I sailed through the 11+. After seven enjoyable years at a state grammar school, Clare College gave me a place to read mathematics.

So what about my career?

From childhood my career ambition had been to become a researcher in physics or astronomy. Sadly, I learned while I was here at Clare that I wasn’t bright enough for the career that I wanted. That’s despite having a 1 in 250 IQ. If you want to be a Watson [James Watson, one of the discoverers of the structure of DNA, mentioned by the Master when he was speaking previously.] you have to be really special, and I didn’t have an alternative career in mind.

I did a Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Leeds University as a way of putting off any difficult decisions. The logical next step is to get a job teaching. And I was hired by the first school that I applied to. However I had no long-term aspirations to become a teacher.

In my first term teaching I picked up an accountancy textbook in the public library and despite the reputation of accountancy I was unable to put it down until I had finished all 900 pages. The intermediate and advanced volumes followed and I was hooked. I trained as a chartered accountant with a small firm and discovered tax while I was training. When I qualified in 1977 I joined the largest accounting firm in the world at that time, and became a tax specialist. I remained one until I retired at the end of 2009.

While we are talking about careers, I just want to share something which I have never seen in print anywhere. At the top of the tax profession, and some of you may be thinking about your own career, people with degrees in mathematics are statistically heavily over-represented. The reason, to me at least, is obvious, which is that tax and mathematics both require clear logical thinking.

My career gave me endless job satisfaction. I was never bored. I traveled the world. I worked with incredibly bright colleagues and served very intelligent clients. I had an endless supply of difficult intellectual challenges, and some of us enjoy difficult intellectual challenges. Finally, it was very well paid.

Now let me share some turning points that led me to what I do now.

The first turning point was reaching the age of 50. At my firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, we had a mandatory retirement age of 60. Once you have less than 10 years to go, retirement no longer looks infinitely far away. I started to think about retirement and what I wanted to do in a serious way.

The second turning point came only a year or so later. In February of 2002, my wife and I went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. The most important day of the Hajj is the day that you spend standing at the plain of Arafat. The concept in religious terms is that God is particularly near to you as you stand there at Arafat. You are supposed to ask for things, to ask for blessings. So what do you ask for?

Some of the things are completely obvious. I asked for good health and a long life for myself, my wife and our children. I asked for world peace. You can ask for anything. But in a few minutes you run out of things to ask for.

And as I stood there on the religiously most important day of my life, I gradually realised what I wanted more than anything else. I became even more aware than normal about how much I have been blessed throughout my life.

I realised that I wanted to spend the rest of my life helping others to make better lives for themselves because in many cases they just don’t know how to do it. I particularly wanted to help other Muslims, not just because I am a Muslim myself but because I could see so many Muslims struggling to understand our society. Remember the date, February 2002, it was about four months after 9/11. It was less than a year after the northern riots in places like Bradford and Rochdale and Oldham.

The third and final turning point came about 18 months later. PricewaterhouseCoopers has an optional course for partners called “Running the rest of your life”. Partners are encouraged to attend this course seven years before they retire. As you can see, PricewaterhouseCoopers believes in thinking ahead!

It’s a three-day residential course. On the first day about 20 partners circled the chairs with a facilitator and they talked about what they wanted to do in retirement. We all wanted to do different things. After all, people are different. But all of us received exactly the same advice.

“Whatever you want to do after PricewaterhouseCoopers, you must start in a small way while you are still at the firm.” The reason is that the firm can help you get started. Also starting from scratch the day after you retire is a really bad idea. It just isn’t going to work. At that time, even though I had lived in the Manchester Muslim community all my life, I had no meaningful national Muslim connections. So I set about building my network, and every person I met led to others. My address book continues to grow virtually every day.

So what do I do now that I am retired?

I retired four years ago, at the end of 2009. I realised, preparing this talk, that in a strange way I have replicated one key aspect of my life at PricewaterhouseCoopers. In professional practice, as a tax adviser you almost always serve lots of clients. You get used to finishing a phone call and having to switch instantaneously to another set of facts and circumstances.

In the same way I have an extremely varied collection of voluntary responsibilities. But they do fall into some natural categories.

First of all I help people on a one-to-one basis with advice and mentoring. Everything I do is pro-bono; nothing I do involves getting paid apart from a small amount of Islamic finance research. These relationships arise completely haphazardly, from people approaching me. Sometimes it’s one-off advice by email, or telephone or in person. In other cases it can become a long-term mentoring relationship where I see somebody perhaps once a year.

Secondly, I am involved with a large number of organisations. I am going to list just five of them:

  1. I am the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum which is part of the Conservative Party.
  2. I am the Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester which does exactly what it says “on the tin.” We bring together Muslims and Jews in Greater Manchester.
  3. I am a patron and Chair of Donors of an educational project called Curriculum for Cohesion. I won’t try to describe the project but you can find it via my website or by Googling it. But I do want to tell you something about our director Matthew Wilkinson who is absolutely fascinating. He is a Muslim. He was head boy at Eton and he is the great grandson of the Lord Jellicoe who led the British fleet at the Battle of Jutland.
  4. I serve on the Council of Salford University.
  5. I am a patron of a project called Tell MAMA, Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks, which is a small scale version of the Jewish Community Security Trust.

Finally I write, I speak, I do radio including religious broadcasts roughly every four to five weeks, and I do television appearances. The subjects are anything; religion, politics, Islamic finance, the future of the euro, anything that interests me. All that matters is that it is something that I want to share with other people.

Five pieces of advice for the second year students.

That is enough about me. I now want to share some thoughts which I hope will help the second year students in future. And since I can only count to five; I’ve got one hand with five digits, I’ve got five thoughts:

First of all, life involves choices.

Every choice you make will close doors as well as opening them. I still remember a dinner I had with a client around 20 years ago. This chap really desperately wanted to be as happily married as me. He’d had one unhappy divorce already, he really could see that I was very happily married just from talking with me.

But he also wanted to carry on having as many girlfriends as he liked. He just didn’t see any incompatibility between those two desires.

Secondly, be true to yourself.

One year at my grammar school, the brightest boy in that year did well in the Oxford entrance exams and he was invited for an interview. On his application form he’d mentioned an interest in German poetry. The admissions tutor asked him what German poetry he had read. Deafening silence. The interview died there.

Now obviously this chap hadn’t even tried to fake it by learning about a few German poets. But I think if he had tried, he would still have fallen flat on his face because faking it is really very hard.

In my admissions interview for Clare there was a technical maths interview which was mostly spent talking about the Japanese board game of go but there was also a general interview and I talked about my fascination with science fiction. The admissions tutor had never realised how much science fiction had to offer the reader and I could have talked for hours because it was something I really passionately cared about. Being authentic is much, much, easier than faking it.

As Shakespeare said “To thine own self be true.”

Thirdly, say yes.

If you read any books on work management they all tell you to manage your time properly. They tell you when you’re working to turn down tasks if you don’t have the time to do them properly. This advice is good advice, but it really misses something very important.

When you get asked to do something that you haven’t done before, or which is outside your comfort zone, it’s an incredible opportunity. My life has been enriched endlessly, both at PricewaterhouseCoopers and outside, by accepting opportunities and invitations. I could give you a list as long as my arm but time does not permit it.

Whenever you have the opportunity to do something new, if at all humanly possible, try to say "Yes."

I already had this philosophy in my head before one of my mentees told me about a film that I didn’t know about. The film is called  “Yes man” and it stars Jim Carrey. It’s extremely funny, but it also has a very strong message. If you haven’t seen it I strongly recommend watching it either on one of the internet services or by buying the DVD which is about £3.

Fourthly, marry well.

In my opinion, the single most important decision any of us ever make is who we marry. Take that decision seriously. Be very clear about what you are looking for.

In the language of mergers and acquisitions, write down your “Acquisition Criteria.”

It took me three years of searching to find the right person. The person you marry will change you, and you will change that person. Hopefully for the better.

What I have achieved in my life would have been impossible, if my wife Tahara who is here tonight had not completely transformed the spoilt 28-year-old brat that she married.

And finally, take care of yourself.

You can achieve nothing without your health, or if your life is cut short.

I have never forgotten somebody who was in the year below me at Clare. He also went into accountancy. He came first in the national exams at both Part 1 and Part 2. These are the chartered accountancy exams. I remember meeting him at one of the prize ceremonies. He also came top in the Institute of Taxation exams, and he had a glittering career ahead of him.

Tragically he was killed mountaineering at the age of 28.

Especially because we went into the same career, I have never forgotten him. And I think what he might have achieved for himself and for other people if he had lived.

That’s it. All I can do is to encourage you to think really seriously about your health and your personal survival and safety because your life matters, not just for yourself, it matters for other people.

The importance of giving to the college.

And now, as the Americans say, a word from our sponsor.

I have never forgotten the story of Lady Clare, from the time I first hear it. Widowed three times by the age of 30, incredibly rich due to inheritance, and after three husbands she decided that was enough husbands and eventually her estate, almost all of it, went towards the endowment of Clare College.

However there were lots of wealthy widows in those times. They are long forgotten. It is because she endowed Clare College that her name lives on almost 700 years later, and hopefully in perpetuity.

I’m sure that each of you feels privileged to be at Clare. I want to mention one really important aspect of that privilege, which is very easy to overlook, and I’ve only really consciously thought about it in the last few years. It’s a privilege that you get by being here.

Self-confidence

When I mentioned this another Cambridge alumnus in April 2016, he pointed out a related aspect. When you have attended Cambridge, you never doubt your own intellectual abilities.

That gives you the self-confidence to ask others to explain things again if you haven't understood, without doubting yourself or worrying that you will look a fool. It also gives you the assurance that you can learn anything that you want to.

From the time that I graduated, I have never ever struggled to persuade people that I met, whether they were at work or elsewhere, that I am intelligent and well-educated.

You meet somebody new, and they ask you “what did you do etc.” As soon as they know that you went to Cambridge, and not just any Cambridge college but Clare, they never doubt your intelligence or education.

That might seem quite trivial, but I want you to imagine how much harder life is just think how much harder life is if you don’t have that kind of automatic VIP pass to convince any person you meet, no matter what their background, about how intelligent and well educated you are. It’s an incredible asset throughout the rest of your life.

The blessings that I received when I was young can never be repaid. None of us can repay our parents. We cannot repay our teachers. We cannot repay our tutors. All we can do is to help future generations.

And this has a name. It’s called: “Pay It Forward.” I first met those precise words in the science-fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, although he did not invent the phrase as I have found since.

From my student days, I have always given 10% of my income to charity. When my income was small, the amounts I gave away were small. As my income rose, the cheques got bigger, but they were still the same 10%. When it becomes a habit, you never begrudge it. You don’t even think about it as your money. It’s just that 10% belongs to charity, belongs to God, etc. Giving that 10% becomes just a part of who you are.

And when I look back at where I have given that money, I give it to all kinds of different charities, but educational charities have been by far the largest part of my charitable giving by a long way. I endowed a perpetual bursary at Manchester Grammar School. I didn’t go there but my sons both went there.

I am already a serious donor to the college, but I want to leave more and the reason is very simple.

What Clare did for me can never be repaid.

Thank you.

 

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