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Balancing the Grind with Matt Levinson, Director of Corporate Affairs at Committee for Sydney

Matt Levinson is the Director of Corporate Affairs at Committee for Sydney, the city’s peak advocacy and urban policy think tank.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

To be honest, my career’s been a wild ride, who else gets to visit Paris and Mexico with the Sydney Lord Mayor for climate talks, to meet Lady Gaga and give her the keys to the city (surreal!), to travel to Addis Ababa and remote refugee camps near the Eritrean border, interview musical and creative heroes and be inspired by great scientists, eat the ripest figs at morning tea while working in a gold mine, and navigate the hottest and most intransigent issues. It’s been chequered and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’ve always been passionate about cities, culture, science, technology and the environment – and I’m now in a dream job for all that, one that takes bits from all my various experiences, leading public affairs for Sydney’s peak advocacy and urban policy think tank, the Committee for Sydney. Our aim is to make Sydney the best city in the world (i.e. even better than it is now). That’s a pretty good mission.

2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

My alarm beeps at 5:30am. I’m up and reading the news (Tele, SMH, AFR, The Oz, ABC, Guardian, various searches and morning radio). I send a summary to my Board and team, which helps align us with what’s happening across the city. If there’s no breaking story, I head out for a quick-ish 30km loop to Rhodes on the bike.

More often than not, there’s a breaking story. If we’ve got something to contribute, I’ll check in with reporters and set up interviews. The Committee’s widely respected, which makes my job easier and I’m fortunate to work with people who bring deep experience at the highest levels – when we comment it’s informed, pragmatic and constructive, and generally welcome.

At the same time, I’ll be posting to LinkedIn and Twitter – key channels for reaching our community of decision makers, leaders and discipline experts. We’ve seen a big rise on these channels.

By then it’s time to head into the office. I’ll be working across a range of projects – fine-tuning a major report, project managing a microsite, drafting our fortnightly member email (‘The Sydneysider’), sitting in on a workshop developing policy recommendations, or attending meetings with key figures in the government or other organisations across the city.

By the time you get to mid-morning, it’s anything goes. Last week, I picked up a GoGet to tour the mammoth new Western Sydney Airport in construction at Luddenham. Every day is different.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

We’re back in lockdown in Sydney again, so it’s all remote for now. Hard to believe we’re doing home school again, with the frantic rush to get computers set up around the kitchen table, pens and notebooks at the ready. Carefully timing the juggle of Zoom & Google Meet sessions for work and various classes. Jumping in for tech support.

Our team at the Committee is very senior and experienced, we’re given a lot of space to work in the way that makes most sense to us, it’s really a great situation. At the same time, the work I do could fill as many people’s weeks as I could throw at it, so it’s important to set boundaries and program in exercise and time to catch up with friends.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Work-life is too simplistic. There are so many things in life that I’m passionate about – music, seeing friends, working, spending time with my amazing family, bike riding, hiking, reading. Having fulfilling work that’s meaningful and having an impact is part of my life and it’s part of being a good parent to my kids. I want them to see that as a model for what’s possible in life.

At the same time, my work is very time consuming. To make sure I’m getting the balance right, I’ve been catching up with my oldest friend to swim laps and have a coffee after every week for about five years now, when I’m in the office I ride my bike to work (and listen to podcasts en route), and I’ve always got a notebook for scribbling ideas. When all else fails I go hiking for a few days, off track if possible, somewhere in the Blue Mountains.

5) In the past 12 months, have you started or stopped any routines or habits to change your life?

I’m going to expand that a bit, over the past five years I’ve deliberately switched to reading more books. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I’d gradually switched to reading more essays and the sisyphean task of trying to keep up with an unforgiving pile of New Yorkers. I quit my subscription, got a Kindle, and it’s been such an escape through the past year of pandemic.

6) Do you have any favourite books, podcasts or newsletters that you’d like to recommend?

Favourite reads:

  • Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker – an extraordinary book about politics, power and NYC (I’m now in his epic series of books on LBJ).
  • Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive – one of the projects I’m proudest of is a crowdfunded journalism project to kickstart journalism on refugees, which supported Safdar to produce an incredible graphic story on Villawood (he won a Walkley for it); with this book Safdar expands the story.
  • John Birmingham’s Leviathan – I’d been meaning to read this forever and I finally got to it over the summer before starting in my new job, should be mandatory for all Sydneysiders.
  • Laura Tingle’s The High Road & Quarterly Essay – I love Laura Tingle’s thoughtful and very intellectual engagement with governance and leadership. In this piece she takes fashionable soundbites (Jacinda vs Scott Morrison; Indigenous rights vs Treaty of Waitangi; etc) and delves so much deeper. Fascinating read.
  • Abi Dare’s The Girl With the Louding Voice and Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Patsy – is it a cheat giving a tie for fifth place? Both of these have been my most recommended novels in the past year or so, I just loved them.

I have so much time for killer investigative, short series (Floodlines, Chasing Cosby, etc), but the ones I come back to time and time again are:

  • The Axe Files – Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod, now at the University of Chicago, interviews key people in US politics. Fascinating and intimate.
  • Download This Show – Marc Fennell has to be one of the hardest working people in the media, and everything he touches is essential. This in particular is a podcast I find time for every week.
  • The a16z podcast – Sonal Choksi curates fascinating conversations with VC firm Andreessen Horowitz staff and others on tech, science, change and a thousand other topics. Essential.
  • Eat Sleep Work Repeat – Bruce Daisley’s podcast is about HR and organisational psych, and it’s far from the usual boring and corporate, this is as crucial as good thinking about how organisations work is.
  • Hidden Brain – Shankar Vedantam’s podcast is a sweet and deeply insightful source on psychology, neuroscience and how our brains work, in the most practical way. As a communicator I’m super interested, but this is about life.

7) Are there any products, gadgets or apps that you can’t live without?

I’m often fine tuning, trialling and replacing the tools I use, but my faves include:

  • Canva – Sydney startup that immediately became an essential tool for communicators, incredible to see its growth to a US$30 billion giant
  • Olympus OM-D E-M5 II camera – love taking great photos with the luxury of a wifi connection, really like leaving the phone at home sometimes too
  • Zoom H5 Recorder – as a radio lover, I’m definitely going to make a podcast, one day, and this is part of the plan
  • Asana / Trello – love both and switch between for different tasks
  • Keep – I’ve tried a bunch of higher powered apps for getting things done, but the simplicity of Google’s Keep app suits me best
  • Telum Media – in the current media landscape, with people moving between roles constantly, this is by far the best source of media contacts.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Some of the people who inspire me most include the following, would love an insight into how they achieve the incredible things they do:

  • Kumi Taguchi
  • Jess Hill
  • Sam Mostyn
  • Que Minh Luu

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

Moments of clarity (and finding more of them) is what it’s all about for me. My work involves distilling complex ideas, being able to navigate difficult issues and find a way through. To do that, you have to think clearly. It’s seductive working hour after hour, but it’s a false promise. I’m better at doing my work when I’m getting time away from it.

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About Author

Balance The Grind gives me a platform to talk to these people about how they're achieving their ideal lifestyle. I'm inspired by the passion, the work ethic, the hustle; and these conversations motivate me to live life the way I want to live it.