Would the real Chris Hipkins please stand up?

Would the real Chris Hipkins please stand up? The politician gets candid about Covid-19 weight gain, being a better dad and how everyone deserves to have a bad day at the office.

Life hasn’t always been easy for Chris Hipkins over the last few years. Just like you and me, he’s a guy trying to do his best at his day job. We talk to Chris about how he avoids taking that pressure home with him, what the pandemic has done to his family life and some surprising realities about one of our most well-known political figures.

There is a lot from the past few years that none of us were prepared for – how have you dealt with the stress from all of that?

I think there’s a lot that I wasn’t prepared for in the COVID-19 response space. It wasn’t a job that I really put my hand up for, It was one that I kind of ended up with through a whole variety of different circumstances. But I’m one of those believers in life that when opportunities come your way, you take them. And if you think you’ve got something to offer, you should offer it. 

But it’s certainly been a lot of pressure, very long days and a lot of unpredictability. One of the key things for me is I’ve had to learn to adapt, where there’s just constant uncertainty; we’re often having to change our plans and change our thinking at the last minute. 

Uncertainty creates a lot of stress – how are you when it comes to managing that stress in your own life? 

Well I’ve gotten better at it over the last two years, being put into the pressure cooker of the COVID-19 response. It’s sort of a sink or swim experience; you either learn to manage the stress or you don’t. Keeping things in perspective is incredibly important. So, when I’m under a lot of pressure, one of the things that helps is to think about the pressure that every other New Zealander is under at the time. Because it isn’t just about me, it’s actually about the whole country. 

In many ways, I’m very fortunate; it’s a stressful job but I think about small business owners who are remortgaging their houses so that they can continue to pay their staff. I think about the health workers who are having to make life and death decisions on a daily basis. And that helps to keep things in perspective, you know. 

There’s not always a lot of empathy shown when it comes to our politicians. For you as a person, how do you handle a big day of bad news, when you hang up your coat at the end of the day? 

You don’t get a lot of time to sit back and reflect – you move from one major pressure point to the next one. And you don’t get a lot of time to stop and think, you know, “how much pressure am I under?” Because you’re just trying to deal with it, with whatever’s in front of you. And so, one of the things that I’ve found is you just have to make space, whether that’s going out for a walk at lunchtime for half an hour. I’ve tried to lose a bit of weight, because I put on a lot of weight in the first year and a half of doing this job. And so, just trying to make sure you’ve just got to force yourself to make the space to do that. Otherwise, it just gets all consuming.

One of the big things we hear a lot about working on the front line of the pandemic was sleep really suffered. I think so many people out there have problems with their sleep, especially when they’re stressed and overwhelmed. I’m intrigued to know how your sleep was during the last couple of years.

It’s been pretty patchy over the last couple of years. And I’ve found that when I go to bed, I’m dreaming about work. If you could call it dreaming, I’m not sure it’s necessarily the best description for it! But work thoughts would continue to process through my mind even when I was in bed. That just underscores for me the importance of just finding that half an hour of fresh air every day and just trying to do things that continue to keep life in perspective.

I think in reflection, certainly for the last two years, we all did our best to look after others but maybe sometimes we lacked putting that focus and support back on ourselves. How true was that for you?

Very true. Up until about six months ago, having been going full tilt at it for a year and a half, I was feeling pretty rundown. I realised I’ve got to spend some time focused a bit on myself. So I started doing some nice long walks, tried to focus on losing weight, started exercising a bit more, and started eating a bit better. And it’s made a real difference in these last six months. And I think it’s helped me to kind of get through the year. I’ve also been listening to some audiobooks, and actually just recently finished a book by an Australian. It’s a book called The Resilience Project by Hugh van Cuylenburg.

He’s a teacher, and a cricketer, and he talks about the gym principles and the gym project that he’s been trying to roll out in schools across Australia. It’s about gratitude and making sure that you are expressing gratitude for what you have every day. It’s about empathy and about mindfulness. So, I’ve sort of been keeping that in the back of my mind as well. 

It’s so easy in life to think about what you haven’t got? Or what isn’t going well? And every day, if you take a moment to think about what are the things that have gone well today; what are the things that I have rather than what are the things that I don’t have.

Because there will always be a nicer car that someone else has got. There will always be a bigger house; there will always be a better job; there will always be more money; there will always be something else there that you haven’t got. And so often we’re focused on that, what’s the next thing that we want, rather than saying, look at all the stuff that we’ve got now, let’s enjoy that and let’s celebrate it. I’ve got two fantastic children that I didn’t have six years ago. So it’s about taking a few moments to celebrate that and to spend quality time with them, to put the phone off to one side and just say, I’m going to be in this moment with the children and not think about anything else.

Well you talk about gratitude and support, you’ve got the kids but I saw you also got married in January 2020. How much of an important role did that unit play in keeping you sane?

The last couple of years have been really, really tough for our family, we’ve dealt with a whole lot of different challenges and I think that for me, it’s really about making sure I have been really focused on making sure that when I am with my family in whatever form, I’ve got to really focus on making sure that I am there, not just physically there, but actually there. So, from taking the kids out to do something, leaving the phone in the car and just saying, ‘This is their time now. This is the time which I’m going to have with them,’ that has been so important. Because otherwise you can be one of those parents that’s there physically, but not there mentally.

I think certainly a lot of parents can relate to having that feeling over the last couple of years. When it comes to resilience, on those days when you get beaten up in the media, or when things aren’t quite going how you want them to… How do you step away from that noise? 

Late last year I was given a framed copy of a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, who was a president of the United States over 100 years ago. And it’s called The Man in the Arena. It’s a pretty famous quote. The very first line of it is, ‘it’s not the critic that counts’. And it goes on to talk about, when you’re in there doing something, when you’re taking the risks, when you are stumbling from time to time and picking yourself up and going forward again, having another go that’s what matters… it doesn’t matter what other people think of it. 

In a job like this, there will always be critics. You know, there are days where you wake up in the morning and think, no matter which decision I make today, there is going to be someone who’s not going to be happy with it. When we were easing restrictions, there are people who think we’re all going to get sick and that’s going to be terrible. When we were keeping restrictions or imposing restrictions, people will think we’re being heavy handed. No matter what, there are always going to be people on either side who are going to be critical. So, the key thing is you’ve just got to keep going. I just look at it and think, ‘I have got to be comfortable with the decisions that we make, that I’m going to look back on in five years and say yes, I believe those decisions were justified, whichever way they are going.’

I think and I’m not sure of your take on this, but sometimes politics can feel like it doesn’t have enough empathy, enough vulnerability. Is that something that you can relate to?

I’ve been a member of parliament for a while, over 13 years now. And one of the greatest challenges I found at the beginning was the development of a thick skin makes you feel somehow unempathetic. ‘Arrogant’ is often used as a descriptor for members of parliament, and for politicians and for public figures. When in reality, a lot of that is just survival. If you took to heart every insult that somebody gave you, you’d never get out of bed in the morning. So, you have to have a fair degree of resilience, internal resilience, and an ability to brush off the criticisms. 

But there’s still an element of human nature in this. I remember going out door-knocking, and this was 13-14 years ago, when I was first standing for parliament. And you could have 20 conversations with people on their doorstep in a day. And when you get home after it, you don’t dwell on the nine things that could have been really positive interactions. It’s that one bad one that you remember. And so doing this job, I’ve had to kind of train myself out of that. I’ve had to spend more time focusing on the positive and less time dwelling on the negative otherwise it would just become too much.

How have you got better at handling stress? And what are the things that you do, whether it be rituals, or the habits that you’ve come to find real benefit from?

I think one of the big lessons for me has been, when when you’re really feeling stressed and it’s a hard thing to do, is to lift yourself out of there and just take a few moments for yourself, whether it’s going for a walk or sitting down somewhere quietly, and just reflecting on things that are good about your life. If you’re only focusing on the pressure points, then it will overwhelm you really quickly. It’s something as simple as going and taking a nice hot shower, and enjoying a hot shower. It’s going and spending 10 minutes in the garden, just because you like gardening, even if it’s only 10 minutes. Just doing something that helps you to reset and ground yourself. Everyone can find opportunities to do that every day. 

And it helps to put those pressure points into perspective. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by them. And when you make a mistake and look, I’ve made a few, it’s easy to just obsess about them. You know, I sometimes spend the whole weekend thinking about the fact that I had a really bad day last week and sort of re-digesting that again and again and thinking what could I do differently? What did I do wrong? And there will always be lessons to learn. So you should never not learn lessons from your mistakes. It’s when you let your mistakes define you and hold you back that you get into difficulty. Everyone is going to make mistakes. And the people who go on to be really successful are the ones who can learn from their mistakes and build on them, rather than let them push them down.

I think optimism is a big thing that we need to hold on to as we move forward. When you’re talking to your kids about what the future looks like, as we come out of this, what are you telling them, speaking as a parent more than a politician?

The world continues to become a better place. There are a whole lot of challenges that humanity faces but if you approach life with the right attitude, if you’re willing to give things a go, if you’re willing to fail, if you’re willing to take risks, if you’re willing to put yourself out there, fail, get hurt from time to time, get heartbroken from time to time but pick yourself up again and keep on going, then the next year you’re going to extract the maximum out of life that you possibly can. 

You know, we come this way but once. So, we have to make the most of our opportunity in the time that we have here on this earth. And that means that you do have to be willing to give things a go. I think humility is so important there, in the face of failure, you just have to realise that you’re a human being – owning your mistakes, fronting up and saying ‘look I have made a mistake here, and I’ve learned from it, and I’m gonna learn from it, and I’m gonna do my best to make sure that I don’t make the same mistake twice.’ 

That’s all we can ask of our fellow human beings. And if you exemplify that behaviour, people generally will respect that. One of the hardest things to do for me, and my job is when I’m standing in front of the nation’s media, to realise that I’ve made a mistake and to stop right in the middle of that and say, ‘I have just made a mistake here, I’m going to own that, it wasn’t good enough, but I’m going to fix it’. You know, that’s probably the hardest part of the job. But it will happen from time to time. And there’s no point in ducking away from that. I’m telling my kids to go out there and embrace failure. I have to be willing and able to do that myself

I also like to think we are not the main character in the storyline, right. We are a community and the more we can be together and support each other and have different points of view is so important. But gratitude is also important, what are you grateful for right now?

I’m grateful to live in an environment where I don’t have to worry about, how am I going to pay for the roof that’s over my head? How am I going to feed my children? I think that puts me in an incredibly fortunate position. So reflecting on that, always kind of helps to keep me grounded. And hopefully give me a sense of humility and also just mean that I can continue to be the best that I can be.

Thank you so much for the time, really appreciate it.  

I think it’s great that you’re doing this show. I think it’s brilliant, so good on you.

 Thank you, Minister. And there it was Chris Hopkins.

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