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Success tip: Choose a career you are passionate about

My 6-minute career retrospective for Clare College 1969 classmates contains key messages for younger people


Posted 24 December 2020

I believe that our career is the second most important choice most of us ever make. (The first is our choice of spouse.)

I was incredibly fortunate that at the age of 23 I discovered something that:

I am currently the Year Group Representative for my Clare College matriculation year of 1969. In that role, on the suggestion of my fellow 1969 member Roger Camrass, I recently organised an event for the Class of 1969 to look back over 48 years and share reflections on their careers.

To provide structure, Roger suggested asking each speaker to tackle the following questions:

    1. What did you read at Clare?
    2. When leaving Clare in 1972, what career direction did you intend to follow and for what reasons?
    3. Did your career change and develop in subsequent years? What factors influenced this?
    4. What have been the distinguishing features of your career that have brought the most satisfaction?
    5. What advice would you give today’s Clare graduates about choosing a successful career?

I recorded the event and video recordings of all the participants who gave permission can be watched on the Clare College website page "Clare College Class of 1969 - Careers Retrospective."

I have also reproduced my own video below. I spoke from a prepared text, which I have now edited to match what I delivered.

I think there are some important messages such as the need to be willing to change what you do, and being open to new opportunities.

Lessons from looking back on my career

Watch my 6-minute video

Read transcript

I read Maths at Clare because it was recommended that if you were interested in theoretical physics at Cambridge, Maths was the thing to do rather than Natural Sciences.

I loved my time at Cambridge but looking at my fellow students it was clear that I would never be outstanding in mathematics or theoretical physics.

When you have been just about the top student, certainly on the science side, at your northern grammar school, that’s an enormous psychological blow. I got interested in a smaller and smaller part of Maths over my three years. Eventually it was just general topology, I think. So it was no surprise that I graduated with a third [class honours degree]. If it has been a four-year degree I would probably have failed.

I had no plan B. Other than being a research scientist there was nothing else that I particularly wanted to do.

To put off difficult decisions, I did a PGCE [post graduate certificate in education].  
I chose Leeds University as opposed to other universities because it had a go club. I played the Japanese board game of go.

Once you have done a PGCE, the natural next step is to apply for a teaching job.
I got the first job I applied for, I got, which was at a comprehensive school in Oldham.

I didn’t intend to stay in teaching long-term. My fellow teachers said to me that if you don’t want to stay long-term, don’t stay short-term, because some of them who had only been teaching for three years already felt trapped in teaching. They wanted out but couldn’t really see a way out.

I had a stroke of luck.

I read a book during the first half term holiday about accountancy, got hooked on it, read the intermediate volume, and the advanced volume.

I was really interested in accountancy but still wasn’t planning to train as an accountant because it meant three years more studying. I come from a very poor family and didn’t want to put a burden them.

It was my sister who is six years younger than me, so she was about 16 at the time, who said that mum and dad would be quite happy to support you as an accountancy student.

So in the month of July I decided to train as an accountant. Of course all the big firms are full [because they recruit to a fixed timetable] so I had to apply to small firms. I didn’t want to wait another year to join a big firm.

I got into a small firm. At this small firm doing incomplete records jobs, it was quite good training for how to prepare accounts.

In my Part 1 Exams, I came fifth in the country which was a big restorer of my personal morale which had taken a hit when I discovered I couldn’t be good enough to be the kind of theoretical physicist that I wanted.

As soon as I qualified as a chartered accountant, I left my small firm and joined Arthur Andersen as a tax specialist and remained in tax for the rest of my career.

I left Arthur Andersen after six years because I felt slightly frustrated, joined a small firm for three years, initially as a senior manager, then became a partner there, then realised I hated it, and I joined Price Waterhouse in 1987 as a senior manager.

Three years later in 1990 I became the second ethnic minority person and first Muslim to become a partner in Price Waterhouse in the UK. In 2003 I was elected onto the PricewaterhouseCoopers Supervisory Board. I retired at the end of 2009.

The one thing I would like to say accounting; accountants have a reputation for being really boring people, and I am more than happy to make jokes about boring accountants and so on.

But I was never bored in my entire career, not even for one day. It was fascinating.
I had a chance to solve really complicated problems which people were willing to pay to solve.

And the other part of it is when you’re solving problems that are not complicated technically but are incredibly important to real human beings.

When you’ve got a brother and sister who basically are not on talking terms because they have inherited a parent’s company exactly 50/50 and he’s frozen her out and given her nothing. She was my most satisfied ever client. I got £50,000 for her out of the company which for her was a lot of money, paid over 10 years. But it also meant that she could be personally no longer aggrieved that her brother was basically exploiting her.

[The above paragraph relates to a client of mine in the mid-1980's. I have added this explanation as a reader mistakenly thought I was writing about my own family!]

I had lots and lots of real jobs like that for ordinary human beings as well as doing really complicated things for multinational companies.

I had lots of opportunity to travel, especially in my last few years when I became an Islamic finance specialist and went round all the world giving presentations on Islamic finance.

I retired at the end of 2009.

I didn’t want to retire just to watch television or do more gardening, so I remain incredibly busy on politics, interfaith relations, speaking to schools.

I taught myself HTML in retirement and constructed my own website.

I have a really fun time.

Question from Roger Camrass who was chairing the event “What would you recommend to young people Amin?”

First of all, life is too short to waste it doing something that you hate just because it pays well.

It’s a terrible choice to make. Some people do make that choice and they feel dissatisfied with themselves maybe a decade or so later.

Instead, I think it’s important to follow your heart and do something you really care about.

But also remember that unless you come from a rich family, you have to earn enough money to pay the bills.

I’ve always been a very, very, practical person.

Postscript - my key messages from the talk

If I had to pick just three key points, they would be:

  1. Being open to new learning - picking up a book on accounting because it had an interesting title: "Accounting, the Basis for Business Decisions."
  2. Being willing to change to new environments - leaving the small firm where I qualified to join Arthur Andersen (who had a fearsome reputation), then joining another small firm, then joining Price Waterhouse.
  3. Being willing to try things where you might fail - I stood unsuccessfully for the PwC Supervisory Board on two occasions before I was elected.

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