I recently received my old school magazine and in it the address given by a former pupil (Dr Claire Ives) for Speech Day was included. It’s a brilliant speech which left a big impression on the pupils, parents and staff. The principles are just as relevant whatever age you are, and I thought particularly relevant for the dating sphere. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (Reproduced with permission)
Lessons for Life
‘Some people see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.’
The first time I heard this quote, originally by George Bernard Shaw, it was in a speech by Robert Kennedy. In fact, it’s a phrase that he used practically every day in the lead-up to the 1968 election. For me the words became my mantra, a key part of the set of principles that I would use to guide my own life.
The words express perfectly the restlessness with which we should approach life. If we are restless, if we seek constantly to learn, to improve, to ask different questions and to inspire others to ask different questions, then our lives will have meaning not just in the present but long after we are gone as well.
So as you leave here today, seek to be restless.
Be restless in your ongoing education. You are about to enter the most liberating and fun part of your life. You will be more free than you have been so far: free to throw yourself into university or an apprenticeship or your first job. Seize that opportunity. Don’t allow the next stage of your education to merely happen to you. Take chances, be bold and make a mark on whatever institution you are about to enter. Challenge yourself to delve deeper into your subjects and to set your horizons wider than you can perhaps yet imagine. I can promise you that if you do, you will be more fulfilled and your confidence will soar as a result.
For me, university was the place where I really learned how to learn. It was here that I started to delve. I read every book I could lay my hand on and went to extra seminars whenever I could. And what happened next felt like a miracle at the time. This pretty average pupil started to get really good grades. It wasn’t that my intellect had changed, it was that I was using it properly for the first time. Getting good grades meant my confidence soared, and I started to flex muscles in other ways – I was elected the student representative on the Humanities faculty and ran a politics organisation, inviting amazing speakers like Jeremy Paxman to speak to students. Being restless to know more started to pay dividends.
So life lesson 1: BE RESTLESS.
It was at that stage that I learnt the importance of faking it before making it: of being audacious! I wrote letters inviting famous guest speakers and I spoke up in faculty meetings on behalf of student rights. But all the while I felt that I would get slapped down; that the speaker or a professor would say ‘Don’t be preposterous, girl. Why on earth should we listen to you?’ Instead, what happened was that people seemed to take me seriously and even, over time, valued my input. Again, little by little, my confidence grew. I learnt that even when you don’t think you’re ready to take on a new challenge, you should dive in anyway. I read an article the other day about Cherie Pridham, the first woman to be the Directeur Sportif for the Tour de France. In describing her transition into the role she said, ‘Every race I go to, I grow in confidence. You still have the nerves, the apprehension, but you give yourself a stern talking to and get on with the job you know you’re good at.’ What can go wrong? Be audacious!
Life lesson 2, then, is BE AUDACIOUS!
So: be RESTLESS and be AUDACIOUS.
Seriously though, what can go wrong? Well, you can be told ‘no’. Sometimes you will be told ‘no’ more than once. That can be uncomfortable and dispiriting. It can make you feel like you should retreat. However, it is these experiences more than any other which forge you into a success. So often, when I talk to Old Canfordians, they will speak not of their pleasure at the successes of their time here. Instead they will speak of those hard conversations they had or the times when they failed. It was those times, they had since realised, that had most shaped their journey through life.
If you are brave in those moments and you challenge failure head on, learning from it, then you will be stronger as a result. My partner recently told me that there are two ways to view failure. Some will carry mistakes on their shoulders, feeling progressively weighed down by them. Others will lay each failure down on the last – building steps with which to reach success. I love that metaphor. If in doubt, remember that the word impossible spells out ‘I’m possible’. So for all of you out there who can still feel the sting of past disappointment – good! That’s good. Take it and learn from it and use it to be better. And for those of you who know that you have made a mistake in your time here, got something wrong, that’s OK. Apologise to anyone you have wronged and then forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes – that is one of life’s certainties – but it is how you face those mistakes which defines you. Honesty to yourself and to others is crucial, and although it may be more uncomfortable in the short term, it will be a far better policy in the long term. Those who deflect are never trusted in the same way as those who take responsibility.
I learned that lesson while working in the civil service. I learned through a mistake so big that I thought I might lose my job. I was coming to the end of a three-year posting and, as was the custom, wrote to all my contacts to invite them to drinks at the local pub. Amongst those contacts were officials from other government departments. As I sent the message out, I managed to attach a document, by mistake, which was not meant to be shared outside a small group within my own department, let along other government departments. The first I knew about it was when I had a call from one of my contacts who said, ‘Yes, I’d love to meet you at the pub and by the way, thanks so much for that amazing spreadsheet on X. It’s going to be so useful.’
You know the sinking feeling you get when you get something wrong – really wrong. The kind that makes you feel sick. I had a number of options as far as I could see:
Option 1: Bury my head in the sand. Not an option – that would lead to me being FIRED.
Option 2: Pretend that someone else had sent it. Not an option – the trail would be there and my boss was pretty bright! That would lead to me being – you guessed it – FIRED.
Option 3: Swear loudly. Not an option – we had a no obscenities clause in our contract, so that too might lead to me being FIRED.
Option 4: Call all my external contacts and ask them to delete the file and then hope they all did. Say no more and hope no-one found out about it. Better than options 1-3 but realistically, I would get found out and then I would be – yup – FIRED.
Option 5: Call all my external contacts and ask them to delete the file and then confess to my boss that I had just breached security in a serious way. I might get fired, but at least senior colleagues could get involved in ensuring that the information was protected.
Option 5 was the preferred one, although it was also really uncomfortable. I can still remember how I felt when I walked into my boss’s office. In the end, my honesty led to:
- a) A pretty immediate rollocking – quite high-volume I have to say. I’m pretty sure that my boss violated the no obscenity clause of our contract!
- b) My boss making sure that more senior officers ensured that the information was fully deleted and not acted upon, thus protecting the organisation, and
- c) Curiously, my promotion. Not straightaway, I have to say, but a year later. When asked to give me a reference, my boss cited my honesty as one of the chief reasons for trusting that I was right for the next level job.
So life lesson 3: HONESTY. Sometimes that honesty is with others, sometimes it’s just with yourself. Whichever it is, it’s all-important.
So: BE RESTLESS, BE AUDACIOUS and BE HONEST.
I’ve got two more life skills to share. You might think that kindness has very little to do with success. It is often looked at as a principle which is applied only in personal relationships or in random acts of kindness to strangers. Some people go as far as seeing it as something which shows that you don’t have the cut and thrust needed to survive in a dog-eats-dog world. Well, that’s nonsense. Kindness should underpin everything we do. And kindness underpins success. Kindness to others, kindness to ourselves, kindness to the world in which we live – in every sphere of life, kindness is key. Many of you are already passionate environmentalists – and thank goodness, for the future of the world is in your hands. If kindness is at the core of your interaction with the natural world, then you can’t go far wrong.
Others of you, like me, will feel passionately about equality, about inclusion and about diversity. Here, too, kindness is the principle which should underpin all our interactions. How should we treat people who are different to us? Kindly – it must be at the heart of our response to diversity. How should we treat those who are struggling to get a leg up in life? Kindly – surely kindness is at the heart of equality. How should we treat someone who is struggling and unhappy? Kindly – it is, therefore, at the heart of inclusion.
And kindness also has a part to play in strategic decisions. Making decisions can be really hard. However, if you know that your guiding philosophy is kindness, then you have a rule which you can come back to time and time again to check that your decisions are on track and, most importantly, that your decisions have consistency.
So, life lesson 4: Be KIND!
BE RESTLESS, BE AUDACIOUS, BE HONEST and BE KIND.
And last but certainly not least: be authentic. So often in life we look at others and think we don’t measure up. That we should be more, better, wittier, more clever, more anything really. The list of how we compare ourselves is endless. Of course, having role models in life is a good thing. Finding inspiration in others is what spurs us on to try and to achieve. I have found my inspiration in so many people along the way. Robert Kennedy, for example, a man who was always restless, always in a state of becoming, a man who cared passionately about people. More recently I have found inspiration in colleagues, especially women who have forged a path that I have benefitted from. I have been inspired by the compassionate and incredible leadership of Barack and Michelle Obama, both of whom embody every one of the life skills that I have spoken about today.
It’s easy to find inspiration in those around you. However, we must guard against healthy inspiration become something darker and more destructive. And that happens when you start comparing yourself to those who you hold up as role models. Let me give you an example. When I first became a housemistress, I found inspiration in my fellow Hsms. But in the first few years I also compared myself unfavourably. I wasn’t as funny as one and I wasn’t as organised as another. I wasn’t as brilliant at reports as a third, and I certainly wasn’t as wise as a fourth. Whilst I probably looked composed in my new job, I spun myself in circles, worrying that I wasn’t enough. I think we all have that trait to a greater or lesser extent. In the end I had to give myself a good talking to and accept that yes, I wasn’t as funny, organised, brilliant or wise as some. I did not lead as others led, and that was OK, because I led as only I could. I came to see that leadership is all about authenticity.
As long as you are true to yourself and your own principles, you can take others with you. If, however, you try to be something you are not, then problems will follow. It was a lesson I have learnt even more recently as I approached job interviews – always a stressful experience and one which you have ahead of you! In the first couple of positions I went for, I sought ways to show that I could be the person that the Head wanted. The problem with that was I was guessing what they wanted – and given that I didn’t get those jobs, I obviously didn’t guess very well! No matter, and I’m very pleased now that I didn’t. What changed this time around was that I based my application on who I am. The Head told me that when the right job came up with the right boss, in the right organisation, everything would align. And he was right.
When we are authentic, we allow others to see who we are and make a judgment about whether we will fit in with their own vision. If they then choose us based on that, we will be in the right place to be nurtured and successful. I have to say that being more relaxed and authentic in my approach was far less stressful, and even – dare I say it – enjoyable. The great author, Toni Morrison, said this best when talking about the narrative of a life: ‘In your own story, you can’t control all the characters’, Morrison said. ‘The theme you choose may change or simply elude you. But being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean.’ It’s a beautiful, liberating thought.
So life skill 5: Be you. Be AUTHENTIC. If you are, you will be fulfilled.
and above all, be AUTHENTIC . It will bring you joy, will release you from fears, and will inspire others around you.
So go out there and make your mark. Be everything that you can imagine and more. ‘Some people see things as they are and ask, why? Others see things which never were and ask, why not?’ Which will you be?