Dr Brendan Nelson AO is a GP, former politician and ambassador, and currently the Director of the Australian War Memorial. During his medical career he worked as a GP in Tasmania and served as the youngest National President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA). As a politician he served as the Liberal Member for the Sydney seat of Bradfield, and held several ministerial portfolios including Education, Science and Training, and Defence before being becoming Leader of the Opposition in 2007-08. Before his present role as Director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan served as the Australian Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, the EU and NATO.
None of this was planned. One thing led to another. My overall guiding instinct was to lead a life of value - one that would be spent in the service of others. As I got further into my 20’s, I realised that you’ve only got one life and before you know it it's gone. You've got to squeeze every last drop out of every opportunity that you have to make a difference.
I have got friends who are doctors who have done very well in a material and professional sense. Some of them are very miserable and unhappy people. My assessment is that they stuck around in medicine for the wrong reasons. If you personally feel that you’re on the wrong tram, you need to get off. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that you must take risks.
I was the first member of our family to go to university. You can imagine how my parents felt when, after school I was accepted to study Economics. And then how they must have felt when I announced I was leaving and had no idea what I was going to do. They were just absolutely devastated. Then again after I studied medicine, got on the paediatrics specialist training program, and then made the decision to leave the program. And after that, to give up medicine altogether - a respectable profession that I trained so hard for - to go into politics. At each point you've got to reassess. If you don't feel entirely fulfilled with what you're doing, then you must really think about it.
When I was a GP, there were several MPs that were building a career for themselves on what I saw as the denigration of the medical profession. I was angry about this. The AMA wasn't doing anything about it. In fact, I felt that the AMA was a big part of the problem. I decided to get active with the AMA to fix it. Having got involved perhaps for the wrong reasons, I then realised how power can be used to realise the aspirations and convey the voices of people that don’t have any.
I took the AMA into a broad spectrum of social issues, using the profession’s influence to advocate for issues as diverse as environmental health and tobacco control. For example, we led a campaigns against tobacco advertising and sport sponsorships, the debates around euthanasia and illicit drug use, and a campaign against the prohibition of homosexual acts in Tasmania.
Regarding Aboriginal health, I put enormous effort into getting the existential challenges of Aboriginal people into middle-class lounge rooms and everyday life discussions. We lost a few members in the process, but we gained many, many more.
You don’t realise what you're learning while you're learning it. Going through medicine is an outstanding preparation for life. As an after-hours GP, I had the immense privilege of spending lots of time in other people’s homes at two, three, four, five o’clock in the morning when bad things had happened.
When I was interviewed for my current job - The Director of the Australian War Memorial - one of the panel interviewers was clearly not happy that I was a candidate. This fellow asked me, “Dr. Nelson do you know much about museums? Have you ever run one?”
I said, “No, of course not. I think you know that”.
He said, “Well seriously, by your own admission, why should we appoint someone like you to run the Australian War Memorial?”
I replied, “Well if you're looking for an expert then I don't know why I'm here. As I understand it there are already 300 people, all experts, working at the Australian War Memorial. But I have learned something about experts from my time in the medical profession and through everything I've done since. Experts see the world through a straw. This job will not only involve managing the memorial, but also be a leader and ambassador for it. I've been in the situation before, and the key task is to apply intellectual rigour to the process of exercising judgment on behalf of the institution and drawing on all of the expertise both within it and outside”.
You've got to nurture and protect your idealism. You can't ever abandon it. You should never stop believing that you can make a difference, whether it’s in a small or large way. You have to accept that you can’t do everything. Life, and certainly politics, is to varying degrees an art of compromise.
Some people lead from positions of authority – the chairman of a board for example. Others lead from principle. The key is to become a person that can lead from both position and principle. In order to do that, you need to have a clear sense of who you are, of your own ideals, and the lines over which you will not cross. You also need the capacity to inspire people to rise above themselves to support the broader vision that you have for the organisation that you're seeking to lead.
Another key to it is that you've got to realise that you can't achieve anything on your own. You will only ever get something done if other people share your vision and enthusiasm for your particular cause. You have got to accept that the people you bring with you will often think differently.
I really don’t know the answer to that and anyone that says they do might have found their own solution. I don't know however know if there's a single, simple template that works for everybody. I think your family does suffer and make involuntary sacrifices no matter which arena you pursue - whether it’s in medicine or politics.
You reach a point where you have just got to say no. Whether it's no to accepting more hours of work, or you have just got to accept the fact that you can't spend another three hours studying that particular night. You actually have to block out time well in advance to spend time with the important people in your life.
The other thing that is really important is making time for yourself and your passions. In my case I like fishing and motorbikes. You need time to think and reflect. When I was in politics, I spent a lot of time on planes before there was in-flight Wi-Fi. I used to love it because I could spend the entire flight thinking or reading.
It’s also important to spend time, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes a day, reading about something that has got nothing to do with your direct day-to-day work. As I said before - you don’t realise what you’re learning while you’re learning it.
No - I don’t think I have any regrets. I put 100% into everything I do, and when I finish, I finish. There's no point going through life saying “What if?”. It consumes people in a negative way. It’s not the things you do in life that you regret, it’s the things you don’t do. If you have a niggling in your own mind, for example you're training to be a general physician but in your own heart you’re wondering if you should be doing psychiatry or indeed leaving medicine altogether to do something else, you will regret it if you don’t follow your personal gut feelings.
My Jesuit education taught me that a life of value would be built on four things.
The first is commitment. Keep at whatever you believe in. Don’t give up.
The second is conscience. Every single decision you make should be critiqued by the question - What is the right thing to do? There is no such thing as a big or small decision. Every decision you make has consequences for yourself and for others.
The third is compassion. Compassion is about being imbued with the imaginative capacity to see the world through the eyes of others. Knowing what a person thinks is important, but what's much more important is understanding how they think, how they form their worldview, and what the key influences on their life are.
The final thing is courage. You won’t achieve anything in life if you pursue risk aversion. The safest thing to do is to just keep on doing what you’re doing.
If by your late 20s or early 30s, you’ve got an inner niggle that you’re not really happy doing what you’re doing, my advice is to do something about it. You really don’t want to wake up at 50 or 60 and wonder where it has all gone.
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