University: where you ignite your life’s passions

Wednesday 3 August, 2016

Sometimes at university, it’s easy to feel like just another number in the crowd. But Professor Attila Brungs, Vice-Chancellor of UTS and Warrane’s guest speaker on Wednesday 3 August, will tell you otherwise. Hearing him speak is convincing evidence that the people running each university are super-passionate about education for each student; and they’re always aware that their educational institution is directly moulding the leaders of the future. In other words, they’re full of zeal to change the world.

A university position mightn’t be something that most people think exciting, but Professor Brungs’ enthusiasm certainly makes it seem that way – especially considering that “passion” was probably the most commonly-used word during his speech. He spoke with gusto about the ever-evolving world, which meant an exhilarating challenge for educators to create curriculum for jobs that don’t even exist yet. He talked about a recent UTS survey which showed that 40% of students didn’t even want a corporate job when they graduated – they wanted to start their own companies – and how today’s young people would change jobs 20-30 times rather than just four or five. He spoke of how today’s students would not only be creating the businesses of the future, but the new industries of the future too. And he admitted that it’s a big job for a university to respond to these changes and give students the skills that they need: from greater literacy and numeracy to sense-making, cross-cultural competency and networking.

Professor Brungs explained that the three missions of a university are teaching, research, and external engagement to change society - but the biggest and most important output of a university? The impact that its alumni can make out in the world. So going from that, he had three lessons for the boys – things that he had learnt in his career, which could help them along the way:

Do what you care about.

For Professor Brungs, science was always his passion. This morphed into a greater passion for how science can change the world, which morphed into an even greater passion for education. He made it clear than everything else may fade away, but having a real and positive impact in the world is the most lasting thing that a person can do.

Discovering one’s passions isn’t something that can be taught, but Professor Brungs said that individuals always know within themselves the things that truly excite and move them. Too many passions to choose from? It’s not so much about picking from them but finding balance, just as Professor Brungs loves his work as much as his family life, sport and more.

And once you know what you care about, the second lesson comes in:

Be true to yourself and work at what you are.

It’s common to hear about being true to oneself, but what does it really mean? Professor Brungs said it is about authenticity, regardless of what you do or where you go. Obviously this starts with self-knowledge – knowing your strengths and weaknesses, along with your opinions on important matters (and then sticking to them). He said that this kind of sincerity is the secret to success, and so important for being a good leader.

As for “working at what you are,” Professor Brungs said that this was about building one’s self-knowledge and practicing sincerity. It’s also about not being discouraged by failure but rather seeing it for what it is – a learning experience – which can be used along the way to making the world a better place.

Professor Brungs mentioned a beautiful quote from Martin Luther King (which he’s kept in his office desk wherever he’s gone), which illustrates his point of working at what you are and being the best you can be:

“If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause and say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.”

The key to successfully making change? Understanding people. 

He’s a man who’s worked at Oxford University and CSIRO, but Professor Brungs cites his most profound work experience as being a part-time role in the complaints department of a bookstore. Why? Because that is where he learned more about human nature than at any other time. Through really listening, he came to learn that most complaints weren’t really about the books, but rather really reflective of deeper problems in the complainers’ lives.

Although Professor Brungs would have loved to use science alone to change the world, he realised that the right scientific answer didn’t always win; it didn’t always have impact. He realised that changing the world came down to changing people – and changing people was often about good leadership skills.

Leadership, Professor Brungs told the boys, is a lot to with interactions - listening to and understanding others, so as to motivate them and work with them. But something really important was this: people think a leader is about inspiring people, but a truly great leader helps people to inspire themselves, which is far more powerful.

Lao Tzu of Taoism said that “the best leader’s work is done when the people say ‘we did it ourselves’.” When leaders disappear into the background while inspiring change, they’ve done a good job. This is a challenge in a society where so many of our leaders are completely egotistical. When asked how this egotistical mindset can be avoided in future leaders, Professor Brungs suggested volunteer work to help young people think beyond themselves. 

Lucky for Australians, Professor Brungs thinks that the national culture contributes to creating good leaders – and as a result he has seen many Aussies in positions of leadership around the world. The Aussie character tends to be less egotistical, thanks to the ability to laugh at oneself; and it has taken lessons from all over the world thanks to its melting pot situation. 

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