Nik Nanos profile: Sober thoughts on turning 50

The early death of his father guides pollster Nik Nanos as he contemplates his 50th birthday next summer


Ask celebrity pollster and researcher Nik Nanos what he thinks about his upcoming 50th birthday, next August, and he will tell you he has already passed a major milestone year.

It was 47, the age at which his father died of a heart attack. Nanos was only 13 at the time.

He made frequent references to how his father’s life and death have influenced him during a recent phone interview from the Ottawa offices of Nanos Research.

“I would definitely say (turning 50) is a milestone to keep myself grounded and where I want to be. My dad never made it to 50 years old. It puts a particular lens on turning 50.

“The way I look at it, it is a time to check in. How am I doing on the personal front; how am I doing on the professional front.”

The professional front is looking just fine these days. Nanos has a thriving clientele of private businesses and his reputation as a public pollster remains unblemished in an era where some of his peers have recently got election predictions drastically wrong.

A notable career highlight was the 2006 federal election, when Nanos Research predicted the results of the four main parties to within one-tenth of a percentage point in each case.

Nanos has a regular stint with CBC News, where he has moved past the role of public-opinion researcher to the status of respected public affairs commentator. Then there’s the firm’s latest partnership with Bloomberg News, preparing a weekly “confidence index.” He realizes this is a tremendous responsibility, knowing that the markets may jump in direct response to what Nanos publishes.

In recent years, Nanos has gravitated to projects that may not pay bills but that will, rather, offer him greater personal satisfaction. Since 2008 he’s been a research associate at the State University of New York (Buffalo), where he has donated research on public policy. And, his firm has a longstanding relationship with the Institute for Public Policy Research in Montreal.

“We consider that our contribution to smarter and better policy-making,” he says. “We all benefit from that. My dad always told me, when it comes to volunteering, don’t wait for someone else to step forward, because you are the someone else who has to step forward.”

In the past year, he was seconded for four months in Washington as a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

“The first person I asked for permission from was my wife, and her view was, this will be a great opportunity for personal development, don’t pass it up,” he says. Others were aghast that he would devote his time with no remuneration. “I remember one guy said, ‘you are not going to make any more money, you are not going to be any smarter. Why are you doing this?’ But that was a fantastic experience.”

Another mechanism through which Nanos shares wisdom is mentoring. But there’s a twist. “The irony is, even though I am increasingly being a mentor to others, I still have my own mentor. I usually have dinner with him once a month and it’s fantastic; it allows me a glimpse of where I want to be beyond 50.”

One of the best pieces of advice he has received from this “intelligent, active, intellectually stimulating” corporate lawyer, 86-year-old William MacDonald, is to have one serious conversation a day.

“I have great conversations with him, the conversations you want to have, that are substantive and about the future and about the broader forces that are shaping the world.”

Another set of important relationships, at the other end of the life cycle, finds Nanos immersing himself as much as he can into the lives of his four sons, aged nine to 16. He is always looking to find ways to stay connected to them, such as regularly taking an afternoon off work to watch a high school hockey game.

He refers to his late father again. “Because of the life experience I had, focusing on the family and making sure that that works well has been very important,” says Nanos. “He retired as a young man, 46 years old, and he wanted to spend more time doing the things he wasn’t doing because he worked all the time, and the irony of it is, he didn’t get much time to spend with his family or enjoy retirement.

“Because of that experience, the relationship I have with my wife, and with my boys and my brother and my mother, are all very important to me.”

Nanos counts his wife, Paule, and his brother, John, as his best friends, and says he feels lucky to have John as a key colleague at Nanos; Nik is the president and CEO while John, five years young and based in Toronto, is senior vice-president. The brothers try to get their young families together as often as possible so the cousins will grow up friends. Nanos has twice taken family to watch world junior hockey during the Christmas holidays and the brothers have already bought tickets for the Toronto/Montreal event next December.

As for his 50th birthday next summer, Nanos says, “My ideal birthday is about me being with people who are important to me. Share time together. So the ideal for me is to be on vacation with my family, and just to be together, whether a barbecue or a nice dinner, whether it is at someone’s house, have a chat and a recognition of the milestone.”