Know Your Why: Ken Costa at The Cambridge Union

Alex Manzoor 11 November 2019
Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

Ken Costa’s life is, in many ways, typical of the philosophical transition that takes place over the course of countless people’s lifetimes whereby their views evolve from the more radical to the traditional as they experience more of the world. However, few people have had as varied roles in life as Costa has from Marxist student council leader in South Africa, to doyen of British high finance as Chairman of Lazard and a religious philanthropist as Chairman of the Christian charity Alpha International.

His different roles come together in the way in which he communicates: switching from careful and reasoned to ardent and passionate, all within a friendly and calm tone.

Costa first began to think about the importance of community and humanity in reaction to the race-based apartheid system in his native South Africa, specifically under the influence of “a master who was English” at his all-white Prep school. It made him realise that “there was a world beyond” his own immediate context and that there are some issues that make us “fundamentally human and one of them is that we couldn’t keep the best of education only for white people”. By the time he was a student leader, this “seed” had blossomed into a “passion for the justice of seeing apartheid destroyed, which we never thought would happen, but it did”.

It was only when studying at Queens’ College, Cambridge, that Costa first explored the Christian faith, which he sought to investigate further when he began to believe that “there was an important dimension beyond the pure material world”. He is quick to deny, however, the idea that he converted to Christianity due to sentiment or mere “emotional experience”, going so far as to study theology “to see if it was a rational belief”. When he speaks about faith in general, Costa always makes it clear that his faith is a synthesis of “reason and revelation”, arguing that “faith will always be non-rational but it is not irrational”. Regardless, he is clear that “faith came alive” for him whilst at Cambridge and does so for many others as well due to a “deep longing for an understanding” of “where we are going and what we are doing”.

“When he speaks about faith in general, Costa always makes it clear that his faith is a synthesis of “reason and revelation”, arguing that “faith will always be non-rational but it is not irrational”.”

Like many people, it was university education that shaped Costa’s worldview and that is perhaps why he is so adamant on the importance of education for young people to find their calling or ‘Know your why’ as his book on the subject is aptly titled. He believes that knowing one’s calling is the most “pertinent question” and that “it is quite difficult to determine at that stage [University] precisely what it is because part of your three years is trying to determine what is the signature motivation of my life”. His advice, like most of his comments and beliefs, is a strong combination of pragmatism and optimism. His suggestion for students is that they do not “narrow” their options “too soon” and instead try to “get to know yourself” through lots of different jobs and experiences so that a person can find out their “driver” and “marry that to the opportunities that are there”. He reminisces with a smile that he thought he’d have a job “for life”, whereas people leaving university now “will not have one less than a dozen and probably before” they are thirty.

“He reminisces with a smile that he thought he’d have a job “for life”, whereas people leaving university now “will not have one less than a dozen and probably before” they are thirty.”

His own work life has consisted of working for major financial firms in the city notably UBS and Lazard, which he was chairman of from 2007 to 2011 and where he advised on major deals like the £1.5 billion sale of Harrods to the Qatari Royal Family.

It is hard to imagine such a devout Christian thriving in the stereotypically ruthless and ‘greed is good’ attitude of the banking world especially during the 1980s but, in fact, Costa brings his faith to work with him. He decries the selfish culture of certain bankers, believing “greed is good is such an anathema” and “it will be seen for what it is”. In lieu of a profit-obsessed atmosphere, he prefers one which moves away from profits being the only thing that matters to a sense of purpose where eventually “profits and purpose run together”. He is incredibly optimistic about this happening sooner rather than later. This is because although younger people “may want to work for a not-for-profit organisation”, they “do not want to work for a not-for-purpose organisation”.

In response to the question of ensuring that the financial sector acts morally, he proposes a balancing of an “ethical environment” and a “degree of regulation” in the banking industry in order to have a system of “inclusive capitalism”, which could prevent a crisis like the 2008 financial crash while avoiding burnout – the “single most depressing disease of our generation”. His support for an idea of inclusive capitalism can be summed up neatly in his dictum that “the market economy is a very bad master and a very good servant”. Although he does accept the need for some regulation, he appears pessimistic about the effectiveness of more radical reforms, like workers on boards, that exists in Germany, as he pointedly states that “all that happens is that the real business is decided elsewhere”.

As the subject reverts back to faith, Costa describes his heartfelt and ardent belief that faith is “the piece we have forgotten” when it comes to societal ills like political division and mental health and it is “essential” that we recover it. He rather convincingly argues that “there is a resilience that comes from faith” which can help people in all walks of life, and this has certainly helped him and many of his colleagues deal with the stresses of their city careers.

Although he fully accepts that we are in a crisis of meaning right now and are living through an “age of anxiety”, Costa makes it clear that “there is a huge awakening coming” and that he “can see it everywhere in Singapore, South Africa and here”.

As his voice quickens Costa makes his key argument that “there is a space for faith as a way to have the inner resources to cope with the world around”, and judging from his own life story, that argument seems hard to counter.

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