Anthony Seldon: “I went beyond finding happiness in inanimate objects”
Sir Anthony Seldon, 67, has written and edited over 40 books on contemporary history, including biographies of John Major, Tony Blair and David Cameron. He was Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University until 2020 and was knighted in 2014 for services to education and modern political history.
What was your childhood or your first ambition?
To be a writer and a storyteller. I was dictating stories to my parents. Frog the frog still awaiting publication.
Private school or public school? University or directly at work?
Two preparatory schools, Dulwich and Bickley Park, then Tonbridge School. At Worcester College, Oxford, I studied philosophy, politics and economics because my father was an economist and a writer. I loved Oxford. It was very liberating. I have directed a lot of plays and met some old friends. I haven’t worked a lot. The program was boring. I graduated good enough to go to LSE, write a doctorate, and start taking my job seriously.
Who was or still is your mentor?
My parents. My English teacher at school, Jonathan Smith, the writer. I had to leave for a half term for organizing a demonstration against the Vietnam War. I was allowed to retake my baccalaureate and lived with him and his wife Gilly. He helped me rethink myself. Robert Ogilvie, an extraordinary principal and gift from Oxford.
Are you in good physical shape?
I do yoga twice a day, I walk 13,000 steps a day. Physical health is really important and we haven’t highlighted it enough in education.
Ambition or talent: what matters most to be successful?
Both, although the ambition is more important. Throughout my life, I have been amazed by the people who have been talented and not well behaved, and the ambitious who have made it to the top.
How politically engaged are you?
Very, but not partisan. I have always been emotionally on the left, intellectually more on the right. I am a 19th century liberal. My political heroes are those who do not segment people by race, region or social background, but who highlight what we share in common.
What would you like to own that you don’t currently have?
What’s your biggest extravaganza?
It was a Morgan Plus 8 sports car. Now it’s finding exquisite old restaurants in France and having long meals with friends. I have passed the stage of seeking happiness in inanimate objects. It is the consolation of harmony, with others, with oneself, which is clearly the only wise object.
Where are you the happiest?
Devon country lanes in spring, with tall hedges and wild flowers: bluebells, silenus, starfish.
What ambitions do you still have?
To see my three children happy and fulfilled, a responsibility of which I am all the more aware since my wife died of cancer four years ago. Forgive others and forgive myself. And try to do good.
What is it that drives you?
I have been blessed with energy all my life. I want to try to bring more happiness through organizations like Action for Happiness, which I co-founded, and the International Positive Education Network, of which I am president.
What is the biggest achievement of your life so far?
My children. A very happy marriage. I don’t think I did anything else important.
What do you find most irritating about other people?
Do the things I’m most guilty of, like talking too much.
If your 20 year old self could see you now, what would they think?
“Try harder, you still have a lot to do.”
What item you lost would you like to have left?
I can’t think of an inanimate.
What is the biggest challenge of our time?
Artificial intelligence. We will solve climate change because, at the end of the day, it is in the best interests of governments and businesses to solve it. But it is neither in the interest of solving the puzzles of AI, which could be the biggest boon or could remove what gives meaning to human life.
Do you believe in an afterlife?
I sometimes live in this afterlife. I think it’s less a belief than an experience: numinous eternity in the present moment. We can all experience this, but we have to adjust the gears of our habitual and judging minds.
If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would your score be?
Five. I worked too hard on the wrong things and not enough on the things that really matter. But I have time to correct that.
“The impossible office? The Story of the British Prime Minister “by Anthony Seldon is published by Cambridge University Press
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