|Chaker is no stranger to the stage, having made a total of 104 speeches last year.
Canadian André Noël Chaker likes to keep busy. Since arriving in Finland in 1992 from Montréal, he has worked as a teacher, lawyer, singer, Senior Advisor to the President at the Finnish lottery and author.
Recent years have seen him add more feathers to his crowded cap. After his book, The Finnish Miracle, a theory about Finnishness and success, was released in 2011, its positive response saw him set out on the speakers’ circuit. And so, last year Speakers Forum’s Speaker of the Year award would make itself comfortable on his mantelpiece.
How was 2013 for you?
I had a magic year last year. I did 104 speeches; 95 per cent of which were in Finnish. It is my fifth tongue. When I first came here 20 years ago, I thought I’d never be able to speak Finnish; it was too hard. I love languages but I thought I would only learn enough to get by. Then, when I proposed to my second wife, she told me, ´If you want to have a life here, the kind of life you want to have, you are going to have to speak Finnish. From now on we will only speak Finnish.’
I then became a director of the Finnish national lottery, the most nationalistic company you could imagine. I wrote The Finnish Miracle, which is one of the most sold business books in Finland last year. It’s a happy message about Finland and Finnishness. But it is also perceived to be a very realistic one since Finns don’t like anything that isn’t intrinsically rational. Nevertheless, it’s positive and, perhaps in some parts, inspiring. I’ll have to get you a copy of it; it can make your life better.
Why is that?
I thought I knew a lot about Finland; I was 17 years into Finland when I started writing The Finnish Miracle. Writing this book made me appreciate and understand this country even more, and therefore value it more. There are a lot of redeeming features about this country that people here won’t tell you. They can’t see it, or diminish their achievements and good sides.They like to emphasise and exaggerate the challenges they face here. It’s a national sport: over realism. We tend to be more optimistic in North America. Here, they tend to overationalise things, not giving things or people the praise they deserve.
When you take a more honest and perhaps more constructive view on Finland, it’s actually a really cool place to live. We need immigrants here as 600,000 people are leaving the workforce in the next seven years. You do the math. We are going to need people working longer and people starting to work earlier. We are going to need more immigrants, otherwise this country is going to have a hard time.
• Chaker first came to Finland in 1992 from Canada to work at the University of Jyväskylä.
Why do you think you have done this 104 times, and been dubbed Speaker of the Year?
I have a broad spectrum of understanding of the culture, given my 22 years here. I have read a massive amount of success-related literature in English, Finnish, French and been involved in many different industries such as the technology industry, the sports industry and the cultural industry of this country; I have made records here. I have been involved in many different aspects of life.
The fact that I’m not originally from here, gives me a licence to say things that they can’t or won’t say about themselves. I’m able to verbalise these things. I think most Finns find this touching and inspiring and it triggers a lot of blockage points opening for them to relate to their world, business and country in a different way. I use 50 per cent raw data, science, everything I know. Then I use a lot of entertainment “tools”. I’m probably the only guy who can get 4,000 Finns to stand up, hold each other and sing We Are the Champions. This happened at the Nordic Business Forum last year. I thoroughly use my experience as an entertainer and singer. My claim to fame in this country is that I am the only guy with Top 10 hits on the radio in these three languages: Finnish, English and French. I know the entertainment industry. I believe my speeches are engaging pieces of “infotainment”, which nobody else does here. I’m powerfully myself out there, I’m authentic. It’s also a message that needed to be heard now, when things are not so easy.
How have you responded to more negative responses to your speeches?
[long pause] It’s hard for me to read negative feedback. I try to learn from it. At the Nordic Business Forum they had 1,200 people giving feedback on speakers. 87 per cent of the people were of the opinion I was very good or excellent. Still, I had 5 per cent truly believe I was terrible, that I didn’t belong there. They thought that my message was naïve or that I was too arrogant, too North American. You’ll always rub some people up the wrong way. If you are afraid of that, you should just stay home. If it stays that way, within the 5-10 per cent margin, I can easily take it. When I start to get 50 per cent of people telling me to stay home, then I’ll have to think about it. It’s funny to read this feedback because usually you can only be either naïve or arrogant – not both.
What would be naïve about your style in their eyes?
Optimism is sometimes perceived as a naïve perspective for a hardcore, ultra rational, super Lutheran person. ‘Life is hard. Life is difficult. Life is gloomy. You’d better just live with that fact, and start working hard.’ That’s an extreme form of Lutheranism. ‘Life is not nice, you can’t go on like that. It is naïve to think that life is nice, to have hope, for everybody to be happy and successful. It’s completely naïve. We all have to suffer, some more than others. That’s the human condition: suffering. Anything we can score above that is just a bonus. Don’t make people believe that they can succeed. Not everyone can succeed. That’s naïve.’
You can make people’s life better. It’s bullshit to think that it’s naïve. I don’t even debate those things; you can believe what you want. I speak to people who want to listen to me. I’m not going to twist anyone’s arm. C’est la vie.
The Prime Minster recently voiced concerns that the negative attitude of Finns is detrimental to the country’s development. Do you agree with this?
He’s absolutely right. It partly stems from the culture. People are not trained to think optimistically. They are trained to think very rationally. That obvious strength can and does become a weakness, when you over rationalise things. It means you are only processing existing data. You are not processing intuitive data, opportunities that don’t yet exist. Your possibilities are confined to what is known, with no impact on what is not known, which can be very good.
Overprocessing the past and what we have now is wasted energy. It creates negative energy and outcomes to simply repeat, ‘Oh my God our pie is shrinking’. Instead of saying ‘The pie is humongous out there, how are we going to get a bigger part of it?’ That has a lot to do with attitude and different ways of thinking. That’s what I tried to put in my book. You have all these strengths that need to be leveraged to create greater self-confidence. You don’t have to start taking risks in the same way as the Icelanders or the Americans do, but you can shift yourself up a few notches in order to create these kinds of new opportunities. It requires a shift in thinking. The Prime Minister is completely right about this.
Having been here so long, would you ever head back to Montréal?
When you are somewhere for 20 years, you become somewhat of a local person, in my case a “new Finn”. I am now a Finnish citizen as well as a Canadian citizen. I praise this country as my adopted parent, without rejecting my natural parents and home country. It’s great to have two homes, and I feel fortunate that way. You should go where your heart and life take you. That’s where you’ll be the happiest.
Even if that’s away from poutine?
Poutine! I could have some once a year and that’s more than enough. [laughs]
Image: Juho Kuva