Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

To change yourself be convinced of your own agency

Geoff Carroll giving his talk after formal dinner

When Geoff Carroll spoke to Warrane’s residents on Wednesday 25 March 2015 he offered them advice about dealing with change.

Mr Carroll, a Warrane old boy, has plenty of experience on the subject, having transformed himself from a financial expert working for Macquarie Bank for 13 years, to a teacher at Sydney Grammar School and, most recently, to a Visiting Teaching Fellow at UNSW’s School of Mathematics and Statistics.

His message to students was to do all they could to develop good habits while they were studying. He said that it was rare in life to have the opportunity to make “wholesale changes” and that university was one of the best times to do it.

“The changes you make now are important,” he said. “Habits are a means to an end – good or bad. As Margaret Thatcher said: ‘Watch your actions, for they’ll become… habits. Watch your habits for they will forge your character. Watch your character, for it will make your destiny.”

“If you get the habits right at this stage a lot will flow from that.”

Some of the main points Mr Carroll made were:

– Be proactive rather than reactive: “Allocate each hour of the day according to a plan. This is being proactive. Once you establish good habits, every day has order and you can tick off your achievements. Be ambitious about what you can achieve in a day, a week, a year. You can do more than you think you can, but only if you are well organised.”

– Know what you know and know what you don’t know. Find out where the gaps in your knowledge are and be ruthless in filling in those gaps. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from people you trust.

– Try to develop “a kind of intrinsic joy” about what you do.

– Learn from your failures, especially through mistakes in exams: ”It is frustrating that most students never go back and look at their exams because they help you find out where your gaps are and to fix them.”

– Stay informed about what is going on in the world and have an opinion – “people will ask you for your opinions and will form an opinion of you based on your opinions”.

– Remember that in general, people want to help you. Many of the biggest changes in his own life, he said, came from asking someone for what he wanted, including an overseas posting and securing his present position teaching at UNSW: “Countless people sit and wonder, but never ask. People usually want to give you what you want. So ask!”

– Get out of your comfort zone: “If you don’t like public speaking, for instance, arrange a way to get up and speak in public.”

– Articulate a narrative about your life: “Tell people who you are and what you’re about. It helps you to organise and make decisions about the future and it helps you to seek out opportunities that fit in with that narrative.”

– Get adequate sleep: “If you are tired you can’t perform at the level you need to perform. You need to look after yourself and don’t get too tired.”

Mr Carroll said some people go through life just scratching the surface and not getting deeply into things.

“I think that’s a habit,” he said. “They don’t dig deeply into why things are the way they are and how they can be changed. That means being curious and seeing how things fit into the broader picture. Too many people are satisfied with mediocrity. Some students are happy to just keep getting passes and credits even though they can achieve more. That habit is not worth keeping.

Mr Carroll said that changing habits is like quitting smoking or losing weight – it is difficult. “Dropping powerful habits is really hard and acquiring new habits is really, really hard, but it’s worth it,” he said. “Keep it simple. Just think about one good habit you want to pick up and one bad habit you want to let go.”

He said when trying to change yourself it was important to be “convinced of your own agency” – that “things only happen in this world because people make an active decision to make them happen”.

One thing that had helped him to effect change in his own life was being told by a superior in Macquarie Bank to stop defining himself by his potential rather than what he actually did. He said this inspired him to take his career at Macquarie to a new level by establishing a physical gas trading and marketing business.

“It got a life of its own because I had agency – I was doing it,” he said. “Things will happen in your life because you choose to do them. Be ambitious, but you have to realise you have to make an active decision to make things happen.”

During the question and answer session, Mr Carroll was asked why he decided to get out of banking. He said it was a decision he made with his wife who also worked in finance. They were both working overseas at the time and wanted to move back home to Australia, but opportunities in financial markets were more limited here. He had also harboured a desire to teach since university.

“It is really hard work changing careers,” he said. “It takes a long time – many years to change your networks – and you have to deal with the voice in back of your head asking if you are really making the right decision.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]