Graduation Address to the Class of 2017

What follows is a section from my Graduation Speech to the class of 2017.

….we have so many, many things we could say: but collectively they can all be summed up: thank you for your leadership, kindness, company and for the privilege of seeing you grow over the years….. whether you joined in grade 4, or grade 12. We’re more proud of you than we can say, and we look forward to seeing what you do with your lives.Parents – thank you for lending us your precious children… just to be clear – you can have them back now; it’s been good but Grad Trip is not on us – just sayin’!  But seriously, thank you . We’ve done our best for your wonderful children over these years; we have seen them grow into the remarkable young men and women we see here today, and we share your pride. We hope you see in them everything you had hoped when you entrusted them to us.

Graduates, I hope you will all look back on your High School years with great affection; the many alumni who have flown in to be here today, and the numbers who constantly visit us throughout the year suggest that this is so for many. But I also know that High School is no bed of roses – or put it another way, it’s a bed of roses but roses have thorns – and it can hurt.

I hope for all of you you are proud of your achievements – you should be – but I know they come at a cost – in time and effort at least; and for some, in other ways too. And we know that for a few of you, it has been really difficult. We’ve tried to be beside you all the way – supporting you, pushing you, pulling you, occasionally dragging you.  I hope it never felt like a kicking; and I hope we got it right; please forgive us when we did not – it wasn’t through lack of care, or effort.  Whatever the reason you found it hard – academic matters, emotional matters, personal matters, social matters, behavioural matters, family matters, and whether you told us or kept it private – you’ve come through it; you achieved despite your adverse situations, and we’re especially proud of you and your achievements today, and what you have done when it was tough. Know that we recognise especially you, and that we applaud especially you.

Now let me speak directly to the whole graduating class. Watch out. Here comes the advice, based on two stories.

Story 1 In 1983 a then-young aspiring musician, Dave Mustaine, was kicked out of his rock band, just as they were signing their first contract. Disappointment, yes. But he used it to drive his ambition and set about becoming the best rock star he could. He practiced, dedicated himself… and his new band, Megadeth, went on to sell 25 million albums.  Dave Mustaine is now a legend of rock. But my message here is not the obvious don’t give up; always follow your dreams.  No, it’s a different message – because the group Dave was was kicked out of went on to become Metallica – who have sold 180 million albums. And 180 million is a lot more than 25 million. In a rare intimate interview in 2003, Dave admits he sees himself as a failure. Close to tears, he said that despite everything he will always be the guy who got kicked out of Metallica. Despite his fame, his glory, his place in the Hall of Fame, Dave Mustaine sees himself as a failure.

So my advice is: find the right standards for success; don’t set yourself absurd targets that mean you’ll never be good enough. Allow yourself to be happy, even when you don’t get what you want. Don’t always compare yourself to others.  Comparison is the thief of joy.  It is tragic for Dave Mustaine that he cannot be happy with his success, and we see similar things on a smaller scale.  Two years ago a student told me he considered anything less than 45 IB points a failure. So with his 43, and a place at Oxford, he saw himself as an academic failure.  I fear for that young man!  When perfection is your only acceptable outcome, you are destined for unhappiness – in academics, in career, in relationships… in life. As writer Tim Minchin said Chasing perfection is the way to have your life pass you by; it keeps you focussed on the future, and out of the moment. It means you will miss small pleasures as you look for bigger ones in the future. It means you will not see the people in front of you because you are thinking about how useful they may be to you. Eventually, you may not even see your children right in front of you because you are looking for the child that does not, and will never, exist. The pursuit of perfection is a diversion from the messiness of real life. Close enough is often good enough and perfect is a myth that’s too costly, despite what modern culture will tell you.

Story 2 involves another danger that can arise even if you are happy with close enough and resist the perfection trap.

A few years ago, I was presenting something at a Primary School parents assembly, in another country, and I had to ask a couple of the seven-year-olds on stage what they wanted to do when they were grown up. One said ‘work in an ice-cream shop’. The other one, to the vast amusement of the audience said he wanted ‘to be a burglar’ (true story!) But in either case we smile because we know that the children are making a guess about what a good life might look like and what the details might be. A great many of our own wishes for the future have this character – they are guesses about what a good life looks like. And we smile because we know that with further experience, self-knowledge and maturity, the picture of a good life undergoes dramatic revision. Eleven years later, at graduation, the hypothesis of a flourishing life will be reoriented to filmmaking, medicine, finance, the law, the theatre, music, engineering, mountain climber, entrepreneur, public charity work and so on. These are still all guesses about what a good life looks like. And they may be more accurate than the ice-cream shop and the burglar (I hope so!) but are they correct?

That’s for you to say; it’s your life. But when I read the business press, look at some of my own friends, and observe the world of work, it seems to me that the notion of a good life seems to have been pushed to the margins –  a nice bonus if it happens, rather than the central life goal it should be. Work has become a job; sometimes a career, but only rarely a calling, a genuine belief in the value of what you do.  And the trouble with that is that even if you do it perfectly (which you should not) – then you will still have fallen short of what you could be; still have let yourself down.   Success in the wrong thing is something of a failure. As Lily Tomlin said Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.

That doesn’t mean that knowing what to do is easy; and it would be naive to ignore the realities of making a living. But if making a living is all you care about, you may miss making a life.  John Kotter wrote between the yellow brick road of naivete, and the muggers lane of cynicism, there is a narrow path, poorly, lit, hard to find, and even harder to stay on once found. And finding that is my second piece of advice here – Seek that path that makes a life and at the same time makes a living; stay on it; show it to others.

Both of these problems – the problem of seeking perfection, and the problem of seeking the wrong thing – are at some level the same problem: the ‘always problem’ that never goes away and that is, to my mind, the fundamental human problem: are you living your days to the best of your capacity, in ways that are aligned with your values, and in ways that you can look back on with pride, knowing that you served others as well as yourself? That’s what we teachers call an ‘exit question’. And this one you should ask yourself every year of your life at least once.  Today is also a good time to ask that question, and as I look back at what you have achieved in your short time with us, I believe the answer to that question has so far been a resounding ‘yes’.

Our UWCSEA goal is to educate individuals to embrace challenge and to take responsibility for shaping a better world. We’re so proud of you. I know I speak for the entire College when I say it has been a pleasure, and a privilege working with you. As well as the great hopes we have for you, we have even greater trust in you.

About Nicholas Alchin

Nicholas Alchin (@nicholas_alchin) is Deputy Head and High School Principal at the United World College of SE Asia, East Campus. A sino-celtic Brit who drifted into working on building sites, drifted into the actuarial world, then chose education, he has lived and taught in values-based schools in UK, Switzerland, Kenya and Singapore. He has also held a number of roles with the IB and writes and speaks widely on educational matters. He enjoys travelling with wife Ellie, and kids Tom (11), Millie (14) and Ruth (17); also running, reading, writing, and baking bread.
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