Graduation Speech – Cape Town (29 July 2016)
We’re here today to honour the graduates sitting in front of me, and we’re here today in the name of education. I can’t think of anything more worthy of celebration in a young person’s life than educational achievements such as this. The unfortunate thing about the term ‘education’ is how as a society we’ve come to view the term in isolation – and only associate it with formal institutions such as schools, universities or colleges such as MSC. Here at MSC you have gained vital skills and knowledge in a focused area of your choice, and for that I congratulate you thoroughly. I have confidence that you will apply your knowledge and skills learned here to good use in your chosen career paths. But your own education must live on beyond this day and into the rest of your lives.
Education is a lifelong aspect, that begins from the moment we are born. The toddler learning to walk stumbles countless times before the first stagger from mother to father. The child learning to ride the bike falls over a number of times before riding confidently. The teenager often tries out many different fashion styles and haircuts before understanding what works for them, through trial and error. If you’re like me, when you learned to drive a car, your clutch control was probably horrendous until it became second nature. Or perhaps you met someone with an alternative point of view on something that made you think. These are merely a few examples that show that the act of learning happens continually in life, and often we don’t realise this fact.
We’re living in challenging times. There can be no doubt about this. Every day worldwide we are forced to confront stories of poverty, violence and hatred. Indeed, education will remain the key element in overcoming these challenges, and it is young graduates such as yourselves who will mould the future world and what it will become. So you can perhaps understand the magnitude of how much sits upon your young shoulders. You are the torchbearers of the next generation, and society is yours to shape. Despite the challenges, the modern world we live in today is also by far the most exciting period ever to be alive. Technology is advancing at rates far, far quicker than ever before in the history of mankind.
It took approximately 2 decades for television to move over from black and white to colour TV. Yet, it’s taken less than a decade for cellular phones to become more powerful than the combined strength all the computers that sent man to the moon for the first time. In 1956 about 6 men were needed to move a 5mb hard drive. Now 64 gigs sit comfortably in your pocket. It took nearly 100 years for traditional film cameras to move over to digital cameras. In contrast it’s taken just 10 years for small cameras to be almost obsolete, due to your smartphone being an even better option.
As we speak companies like Tesla are in advanced testing phases of cars that drive themselves. Through stem cell research scientists are coming increasingly close to the ability to grow an entire human organ. Some predictions show that within the next couple of decades scientists could be able to grow an entire human body primarily through stem cells and atoms. Which would effectively mean that you could have a backup body of yourself sitting in storage in case you need any organs.
Ten years ago, Twitter was still the sound of birds chirping. A blackberry was still a fruit, and a tablet was something you maybe took when you had a headache. Now these words have very different associations attached to them. In fact, studies show that the popular job titles in the workplace 20 years from now don’t even exist yet. So how do we keep up with this rapidly changing and advancing world? We keep learning. We keep enquiring.
The modern world is becoming more and more conducive young peoples’ success, simply because of the rate of change and the fact that young people are usually at the forefront of that change. At the age of 21, Steve Jobs started developing the first Apple computer in Steve Wozniak’s garage. At the age of 20, Bill Gates founded a small software company called Microsoft that would go on to change how computer systems operated. In his dorm room at Harvard at the age of 20, Mark Zuckerberg started playing around with something called ‘The Facebook’. A decade later, some of us cannot imagine life without this tool.
These 3 men were different from each other in many ways, but the one thing they had in common aside from their young age is very clear to me: inquiring minds. The ability to look deeper into a given subject, the ability to analyse something in a different way, and the willingness to say ‘We can improve on existing knowledge. We can better this.’
If you had to speak to a person 100 years ago, and explain to that person the ease of access we have to knowledge and information, I don’t think they’d believe you. With the touch of a button we have access to pretty much any subject matter we would like to know more about. We have google search, we have podcasts on any topic you’re interested in. You can follow Twitter accounts of people you can learn from. You can get a guided video tutorial on Youtube to show you how to do almost anything. You can download free e-books on practically any knowledge area. And this is with you all the time – accessible on something that sits in your pocket. In a couple of seconds, I can learn about the complex theory of bimolecular reactions . . . if I wanted to. Imagine explaining this to someone in 1916 instead of 2016. Even in my lifetime, I remember having to go to the library to find more about a given subject. Now it’s just one search result away in 10 seconds.
As the great Albert Einstein said “Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.” I firmly believe that those people who have the ability to continuously acquire new and better forms of knowledge and apply it to their daily lives will be the pioneers of our civilization.
As a society we need to be protecting the most precious resource we have – the individual mind. We need to ensure that the inquiring mind of the human being is able to take whatever path it chooses. And we need to be fighting any force that seeks to enslave our minds or which forces us to think a certain way or insists on telling us what to think.
The other characteristic of these pioneers in the world is a complete disregard for the fear of failure. Bill Gates watched his first company crumble. Walt Disney was told he wasn’t creative enough. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first TV job and told that she was ‘Unfit for TV’.
Make peace with the inevitability of failure, and understand that failure is a cornerstone of education. Failure is only a tragedy when you haven’t given it your all. Failure teaches us to try things in a different way. It shows us what and where we need to improve. It teaches us that regardless of our level of expertise, improvement is still possible. Ultimate success in any field or any endeavour is not a straight line, but rather jaggedly zig zagging line denoting trial, error, and improvement.
I’ve spoken about inquiring minds and critical thinking, but the critical thought should not begin and end with the world around us but must extend to the world within us. How often do we think critically of ourselves? How often do we truly self-reflect? How often are we willing to be mature enough to say, ‘I was wrong’? I’ve already highlighted the challenges we face in the world every day. How many of these challenges would be reduced if more people were willing to self-reflect and work together? Understand that being critical of yourself is not degrading negative self-talk, but rather a sign of strength and intelligence. A simple piece of advice I could offer you is this: If you’re open and honest about your weaknesses or shortcomings, the world cannot shame you or expose you.
So the people who’ve become successful in the world and in their fields have a couple of things in common: inquiring minds, and they were fearless of failure. But there is a third thing that these people understand more than anyone. And that is that the only person in control of your success is yourself. People can help you along the way. There are experts out there who will hopefully teach you many things, but ultimately it is only you and your actions that will determine your success. The universe is indifferent to those who remain indifferent. Go head first into your endeavours with a smile on your face and passion in your heart, and the positive energy will follow you.
In his many years in prison, Nelson Mandela kept a piece of paper with a few lines of poetry. Many suggest that it was these lines that saw him through in the end. The lines were:
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul
So to the graduates sitting in front of me, here is my final advice to you as you head out into the world:
Believe in your convictions, while always welcoming a different opinion. Treat everybody with respect, while never fearing to voice your own opinion. Listen to all advice and see all directions but remember that you are the one behind the wheel. Measure yourself on your actions and results, not your words or promises. Let the world around you be your school and let your experiences be your teacher.
In summary, even if you forget most of what I’ve said today, I want you to just remember three words: NEVER STOP LEARNING