How to live with purpose, and other lessons from former SAS, Kevin Bailey AM

Wednesday 26 July, 2017

When Kevin Bailey AM attended the Warrane Wednesday night dinner on 26 July 2017, the retired financial planner and father of seven started with something that Socrates said: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” This was pertinent to the themes of the night, which centred on finding purpose in life, and standing for it.

“I actually want to have a life that has purpose; that has meaning; that has excellence. And I encourage you boys to aspire for greatness,” he began.

And let’s just say that excellence is something which Bailey knows about – just this year, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his significant service to Australia-Timor-Leste relations, to philanthropic organisations, to the financial planning sector, and to the community.

A bit of background

Kevin grew up living in a Sydney housing commission home – the son of a factory worker and one of eight children. Despite excellent grades, he wasn’t able to complete high school and so joined the army to try and pull himself out of these circumstances; with the aim of adventure as well as getting an education. He went on to study electronics; and enjoyed cross country running and shooting. He was well placed when the army supported the establishment of Biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting. He was selected to represent Australia at Olympic level in the Biathlon but a few months before the 1980 games in which he was to participate, he had a motorbike accident and broke both his arms in 11 places.

Lying in his hospital bed, the Olympics now impossible for him to attend, he decided that in order to recover he had to set himself what he calls a ‘BHAG’ – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. He decided that he would get into the SAS: the elite of the army. Through hard work and determination, he got to the selection panel and qualified with around 20 others - from about 2000 original nominations.

Kevin went on to become part of the army’s counter-terrorism team and enjoyed the challenges it posed. While he loved jumping out of planes, scaling buildings and training others, he reached a point where he felt that he needed to move on to the next phase of his life. As he came to realise, he was passionate about trying to find his niche in life.

Soul searching

Kevin told the boys about Helen Keller, an inspiring woman who overcame the adversity of being both blind and deaf, who said that life is a daring adventure or nothing at all. “What is your adventure?” he asked them. “What is your purpose?”

These are the questions he was still asking himself at age 50, when he found himself soul-searching after deciding to leave the financial services sector. After the army he had invested some money, got interested in the finance world and built his own company. He sold the company for a tidy sum but still felt he hadn’t quite discovered his purpose.

“Money doesn’t buy you happiness, it just makes you a lot more comfortable,” he told the boys. “I was in the position of not needing to work, which makes you really question what you want to do with your time. If you’re a Type-A personality, you would get pretty bored with sitting on the beach, or skiing, or sailing - not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but that’s not what I wanted to do with my life.”

He continued: “The essential question is - who am I? Why am I here? Why do I exist? What’s my purpose in life? What’s my destiny? What gives meaning to each and every one of us and gets us out of bed in the morning? What is it that we’re prepared to lay our lives down for?”

Around this time, looking at actuarial tables, Kevin figured he had about 13,875 days to live. He realised that every three years of procrastinating he would lose another 1000 – and he was very aware of running out of time. He said that just as St Paul talks about how God has created good works for us in advance, we have to find out what they are and set about doing them. He told the boys how every person has a deep yearning in their heart that won’t be filled by the things we are commonly told will make us happy: money, success, pornography, etc. This yearning can only be satisfied by living your specific purpose.

Kevin asked the boys: “What is it that you were created for, before you were born? What is it that is your mission you were given to accomplish, that will answer the deepest yearnings of your heart; that will transform your life from a life of quiet desperation to a life of grand and daring adventure?”

“For me,” he continued, “I recognised that I had to get involved in things that make me come alive... And so as I searched through the things I was involved in; it was the social justice issues that were really dear to my heart: third-world poverty and working with the poor. Working with the disadvantaged and being involved in philanthropy became something that I became more and more involved in. And so I started dedicating my life to things that I actually wanted to make a difference in. But it wasn’t good enough for me to just get involved... I wanted to throw everything into it including my finances. So, I set up a foundation and started giving some money away and it was really hard, because I spent my whole life trying to make money!” I realised that I was too attached to money and this was something I needed to work on.

He told the boys that it was also important to him to be an example to his kids in whatever he did. “What would I do if my children were watching me right now? And as men we have a special responsibility, because children look to their mothers for nurture, but look to their fathers for character.”

And one thing that Kevin said he tries to impart to his kids is that the purpose of life is not to be happy – this mentality just sets us up for failure and for always feeling the need for new things or people to sustain us. No. The purpose of life, he told the boys, is to live a life of meaning, purpose and significance. If happiness is achieved as a by-product of this, then this is wonderful. Our culture needs to make the move from success to significance: and the most significant thing is to live a life of surrender – “to give our life away, for something meaningful!” said Bailey.

Living truth and fighting political correctness

Before finishing his speech, Bailey spoke to the boys about how living a life of purpose involves seeking and standing up for the truth. He encouraged them to look further than what they are told by friends or lecturers or the media; to discover real truth and live by it.

“I believe that society is getting to the state that it is in because of a lack of courage; particularly a lack of manhood and a lack of character,” said Kevin, “we’ve lost the capacity for logic and to think for ourselves. And I, for one, am not going to take it anymore. I don’t care what you believe; I don’t care what you stand for. But by crikey, I do care that you believe in something and that you stand for it no matter what the cost!”

He continued: “As men we are called to stand up and be counted, and for too long, this past generation or two have been bullied into silence... In the 1950s and 1960s, feminism was very important. And women’s rights and equality was very important, and is still is very important. But what’s happened is it’s basically muted many men. And so we’ve ended up with a bunch of metrosexuals; we’ve ended up with a lot of girly men. What’s interesting is that we’ve been told to be ashamed about...our Judeo-Christian background – we are often made to feel that we are always the problem and the root and cause of what’s going wrong. Currently, political correctness reigns supreme and there are certain things that you’re not allowed to question...”

“This is a problem because we need to be able to debate things. We need to be able to actually research things; to look into the science and the evidence of things and come up with your own conclusions. And be open-minded – truly open-minded. And be prepared to be called names – you know so many people in the past laid their lives down for truth, and now so many people shut up about the truth because they don’t want to be called a “bigot” or a “–phobe”. We live in a pluralistic society where we should be able to live side by side with people who have diametrically opposing views and be able to respect those views; then we can inquire about those views and we can debate those views, and people can likewise ask us about our views...”

Words to live by

Kevin ended with some strong and inspiring words from Theodore Roosevelt, a challenge to the boys to live their lives to the fullest:

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

(Photos from the evening are available here)

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