Margaret Thatcher: how a scientist became the prime minister

Would you be surprised to know that Margaret Thatcher started her career as a scientist? Yes, she graduated from Oxford with a degree in Chemistry. And worked on figuring out how to inject more air to icecreams, so that it could be manufactured with fewer ingredients and cost less. In that process, her team had a breakthrough and discovered how to create soft serve ice creams!

Thatcher could have had a long career as a scientist. But she pushed herself to achieve more. She wanted to help people more directly. So she got a law degree while she was pregnant with twins. 

But being a lawyer didn’t satisfy her either. And she entered politics. Being just 24 years of age, she was the youngest candidate to stand for a seat in the house of commons. She didn’t win elections till 10 more years passed however.

“There will not be a woman prime minister in my lifetime” – Margaret Thatcher, 1970

In 1970, when asked by a media company for her opinion, Thatcher said that the male population is too prejudiced for a woman to be elected as prime minister of Britain. But people who knew her knew that Thatcher was not being a pessimist. Instead, she was using that prejudice as her fuel. They were not surprised when in 1979, Thatcher indeed became the first woman prime minister of Britain!

How did Thatcher conquer the peaks that seemed unconquerable? What was her secret to success?

Thatcher’s secret

When a young man asked Thatcher if she had any advice for him, she revealed her secret: “stay a little bit hungry and a little bit cold.”

What does that mean? Be constantly dissatisfied. Be ok with discomfort. Because that’s what will push you to achieve more than you are capable of.

Being constantly dissatisfied does not mean being constantly unhappy however. It means that you are on a constant quest of betterment. As new mothers show, discomfort and pain can actually make you happy if it creates a sense of purpose and achievement.

Comfort kills motivation

There is a reason why wealth earned by the first generation – dissipates by the third or the fourth generation. It’s because comfort creates complacency. Discomfort creates drive. Drive to work harder and not settle for mediocrity. 

People with too much comfort become lazy. Countries with a lot of natural resources are cursed to not prosper. Companies that are over staffed become slow and bureaucratic. At every stage, a little bit of discomfort makes you grow stronger.

So how do you build a constant sense of dissatisfaction?

It’s the mindset more than anything else. Being dissatisfied even when you are achieving goals others would be envious of is built out of…overestimating your abilities. And seeing yourself as more capable than others. If you believe you are meant for greater things, you will push yourself constantly.

People make fun of Elon Musk missing deadlines after unreasonable deadlines. But that’s a side effect of Musk over estimating his abilities. Musk has been successful only because he has consistently overestimated what he can do. 

Beyond the self belief, two practical tactics that help are:

  1. Regularly reassess goals. As you achieve old goals, set time aside to reassess and set new bigger and scarier goals.
  2. Crave criticism. Ask others for their feedback. Let people give you feedback anonymously if that helps. Criticism helps you fix your flaws.

Margaret Thatcher asked her advisor Gordon Reece what he would fix in her personality. Reece laid it out for Thatcher: he thought her natural speaking voice was too shrill. This was in 1978. Thatcher was already 53 years old.

But Thatcher hired a voice coach from London’s national theatre and worked hard to lower her pitch. She built a calm authoritative tone that helped her connect with the voters. And a year later, not entirely because of her voice modulation alone, but she had become the prime minister!

Action Summary:

  • Build a constant sense of dissatisfaction. Create a mindset where you believe you are, or can become, better than others.
  • Be ok with discomfort. Push your boundaries and raise your standards. Be slightly better today than yesterday. Think bigger than yesterday.