Harold Mitchell

Never give in

Dr Tim Papadopoulos puts media entrepreneur and philanthropist Harold Mitchell AC in the hot seat with his own version of Proust’s Questionnaire.

At the ASAPS meeting in Sydney on Saturday 24th November, Harold Mitchell AC gave the Oration. He reminisced about his life, from his humble beginnings in Trafalgar, Victoria, son of a sawmiller and desperate for his first job at 16, through to the dizzying heights of his success as the founder of the world’s number – one advertising agency.

He is the founder of Mitchell & Partners and until August 2013 was Executive Chairman of Aegis Media, Australia and New Zealand. In 2000 he created the Harold Mitchell Foundation, which donates money to various causes promoting community health and the arts.

Mitchell was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia in 2010 for eminent service to the community through leadership and philanthropic endeavours in the fields of art, health and education and as a supporter of humanitarian aid in Timor-Leste and Indigenous communities.

He was awarded the Victorian Australian of the Year for 2013.

Mitchell has been the chairman or board member of various organisations including the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, the New York Philharmonic, the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum Board of Victoria, Opera Australia, CARE Australia, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra,Tennis Australia, the Deakin Foundation and the Melbourne International Festival of Arts.

He is a major supporter of sport, cementing the viability of soccer in Australia. In 2010 he became co-owner of the Melbourne Rebels rugby union team. He also ceaselessly promotes Australia overseas, and has introduced Australian Indigenous Art to millions of people.

Mitchell was brutally honest about his battles with alcoholism and obesity and how he has overcome both. He has been a teetotaller for a number of years, and shed 70 kilograms before his 70th birthday.

After the presentation, Dr Tim Papadopoulos sprung his Proust’s Question Time on Mitchell who took it all in his stride. In fact, he revelled in it and gave some fascinating insights into his personality. Here are the questions and answers.

Mitchell’s answers to Proust’s Questionnaire

Marcel Proust

What is your greatest regret?
My greatest regret is not achieving enough. At my stage of life it’s all about giving back and I often think about whether I have achieved enough. When I was asked to deliver this presentation, I immediately thought “will they know who I am?”. No matter how much one achieves, one thinks they should have achieved more.

What talent would you like to have?
That’s a toss-up. I always wanted to play the piano and I am so envious of those who can speak another language. I think ‘play the piano’ is the talent I would most like to have.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would like to be taller!

What’s your greatest achievement?
I think just “making it”. I didn’t have a privileged upbringing and was lucky to even get a job as a clerk at an advertising agency when I was 16. I applied for hundred jobs and that was the first one I got. From there, I never looked back and am just glad that I didn’t finish up like those people who were around me growing up. From a junior clerk to having the number-one ad agency in the world – that is an achievement.

If you died and could come back as a person or thing, who or what would it be?
Well, I live alone in Spring St in Melbourne with two very spoilt little white dogs. So I would definitely want to come back as one of them and have their life!

Your most precious possession?
This is an easy one to answer. My heart is okay and I have dropped my weight from 165kg to 95kg and I did that for my health. When you die, you die, so definitely my health is my most precious possession.

What is your most marked characteristic?
Definitely persistence. Nobody likes change, but if something is right, just persist with it.

What do you most value in your friends?
Honesty. That’s not easy, because honesty can hurt. And not just with friends, even countries need to be honest with each other, especially Australia with China and Indonesia. Most of us have five friends but many acquaintances. Actually, it may even be just three friends. My son is one of my best friends, and he is very honest with me. Especially in business. I value that.

Who is your favourite hero of fiction?
Well, we are all dreamers and I’ve had seven houses, which means seven libraries. Yet Enid Blyton’s ‘The Famous Five’ are my favourite fictional heroes.

Who are your heroes in real life?
I have two. The first is David Gonsky, who spends his life giving back and is always willing to help. The second is Frank Lowy; another man who embraces life, change and diversity.

What do you most dislike?
Disloyalty. Australia is an enormously multicultural society with great levels of immigration, yet Aussies still stick together and are generally very supportive and accepting of others.

What is your motto?
Never give in. Never give in. Never give in.

Who is Proust and what is the Proust Questionnaire?

Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a French novelist, considered by many to be one of the greatest authors of all time and is best known for his monumental novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927.

The Proust Questionnaire is a set of questions designed to reveal the personality of the respondent. This form of interview was not designed by Marcel Proust, but is named for him after he frankly answered a questionnaire in an English-language confession album belonging to his friend Antoinette, daughter of future French President Félix Faure. The original manuscript of his answers of 1890, titled By Marcel Proust himself, was found in 1924 and it was auctioned on May 27, 2003 for the sum of €102,000.

TV host Bernard Pivot, seeing an opportunity for a writer to reveal at the same time aspects of his work and his personality, traditionally submitted his guests to the Proust Questionnaire at the end of the French broadcast Apostrophes.

Inspired by Bernard Pivot, James Lipton, the host of the TV program Inside the Actors Studio, gives an adapted version of the questionnaire to his guests.

A similar questionnaire is regularly seen on the back page of Vanity Fair magazine, answered by various celebrities. In 2009, Vanity Fair launched an interactive version of the questionnaire, that compares your answers to various luminaries.

Another version of the questionnaire, as answered by various Canadian authors, is a regular feature on the radio program The Next Chapter.