Graduation speech on the need for confidence, courage and optimism

self-confidenceThe Chancellor, The Vice-Chancellor & Deputy Vice-Chancellors, The Registrar & Deputy Registrars, The Executive, Members of Academic & Support Staff, Parents and friends of the graduates, The most valued guests of the day, the Graduates: It is a privilege for me today to congratulate you on this graduation.

Before I start – I do apologise for my rather startling appearance today, I had an accident on Saturday in that most dangerous of places in the world, the family home, by falling over a chair.  A rather embarrassing event for a former stunt pilot and flying instructor and one that my children are delighted to tease me about – not only do I have an iPhone, iPod and an iPad, but I’m now an eye-sore who needs an eye-patch.

But that is so much how life works out – “life is what happens when you are making other plans”.  And you planned to be here today and have made it.  I salute you, your families and the wonderful institution that have together achieved this.  I recognise your success, your hard work, and your discipline and above all the courage and confidence you have shown.   Your parents and communities have believed in you, your teachers have believed in you and you have believed in yourselves.  You have had to face critics and people who would put you down – but I am sure you have begun to learn to not pay any attention to the critics – no-one has ever erected a statue to a critic.  On the contrary, statues get erected to people who used the bricks critics throw at them, to lay the foundations to a better life.

Today I want to talk a little bit about what confidence is and is not, and how a sense of purpose and confidence make such a difference to our lives.

You have made extraordinary progress in South Africa in the last 17 years.  In many ways South Africa was an abused society and the deepest effect of abuse is on self-confidence and self-esteem.  “Colonization of the mind “ as Steve Biko called it.  And in education this effect was mainly felt on those excluded.  I believe for a long time we have confused education with intelligence in South Africa, and now we are truly coming out of that.  South Africa has many, many highly intelligent but undereducated people – people who in the past were systematically deprived of education and now who fight for their sons and daughters to have the opportunities they did not.  This is an extraordinary time in South Africa – a time of great danger but enormous possibility too.  We mine South Africa for our mineral resources but our greatest resources are our people. People like you.  I believe we need to value and develop those resources with a passionate intensity, providing motivation, encouragement, quality education and good example.

Above all we need to build a proper confidence. South African people have all the talents, intelligence and capability of the Americans, Asians and Europeans and it’s about time we all really started to believe that.  For belief is more than rhetoric. Our best education institutions know this and are increasingly working together to build a positive South Africa.   Our universities and places of learning are not rules unto themselves; they serve the societies in which they are situated by providing the skills and foundations to build better quality of life.   In the end they serve both knowledge and society.

Corruption is not based in self-confidence but in self-weakness, in a lack of personal significance as Mamphela Ramphele calls it.  The weakness that feeds the need to take short cuts and take from others, the weakness that says I can’t, not that I can.  Our society needs people who are confident and capable – confident to innovate and try new ideas and capable of managing well, using their intelligence and their imagination, using resources effectively and creating new forms of value, new businesses, money for families to develop, to have good health and to educate their children.

So how can you develop true confidence?  The first stage in true confidence is to know, really know, that you can learn your way through most things.   When you know that you don’t fear being ignorant ever again.  You don’t need to defend your ignorance or be scared of the new.   For it doesn’t matter how smart a person is, they aren’t smart in everything.  Take any CEO, any professor and put them in a wet suit under the sea – there’s an interesting image – and they are just as much a beginner as you or I might be.   They have to learn from the beginning again.  And you and I will never be smart in everything either, so let’s learn to love learning.  If we know that we can learn, we will relish the challenge of the new and know that we can grow and succeed.

The second stage in true confidence is to embrace optimism, even in the face of great difficulty.  When there is no hope, then hope is the only answer.  Research has shown that we are wired to think that cynical and negative people are smarter than optimists but it simply isn’t true. In fact they can suck all imagination and creativity from a situation. Cynics are just passionate people who have been disappointed once too often.  If we let ourselves become clever cynics like this, it will make us a nation of problem solvers rather than a nation of possibility seekers. And it’s purpose and possibility we need.

But not just any sort of optimism will do – it’s the type of optimism that matters.  Victor Frankl, a WWII concentration camp survivor and famous psychologist, noted that neither the pessimists nor the blind optimists survived long.  The ones who made it through were the ’tragic optimists’ – the ones who said ‘yes’ to life in spite of knowing the difficult reality of everything.  Cultivating this attitude turns pain into achievement, turns guilt to the possibility of improvement and turns the knowledge that our lives are not endless into taking responsible action.  There is no room for cynicism in leadership or in education. Optimism is a powerful force and we need to nourish and cultivate it.

The third stage of true confidence is to develop a sense of purpose and horizons.  Some unlucky people walk around staring just ahead of their feet – it’s hard to get a sense of possibility that way and to see much of anything in front of you. Others, perhaps most of us, see straight ahead and slightly down, and go through life managing well enough.  True leaders look up and ahead, lift their eyes and see the possibilities – hold a vision.    When we manage purpose is when we achieve great things.  Our greatest leaders – in politics, government and business – are those who lift us up to a purpose; and you can be one of those leaders.  If you maintain a sense of purpose before a sense of profit you have the chance of building truly great organisations that will make a difference to people and make money too.

The two final stages in true confidence are firstly courage and secondly to have fun.  Strangely they go hand-in-hand.  We can never get anywhere without the determination and raw courage to act.  We also need the discipline to continue acting until we develop skills.  If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly to begin with. None of us start perfect. It’s no good going to gym once, that’s how the gyms make all their money.  You have to stick with it.

If you are brave you will get hurt sometimes.  Courage is acting when we fear, not when we are fearless.   We generally find that life shrinks or expands in proportion to our courage.  But I don’t need to tell you this for you have all shown the courage and self-belief to take this first vital step on your path.

The final point in true confidence, fun, is critical.  For fun and play and experimentation and crazy exploration are where we express our most subversive and radical capabilities – our capabilities of imagination and creativity.  Here you will face challenge and ridicule and opposition, for it is here that you become agents of change…. and the establishment doesn’t like change, but it needs it to stay fresh and relevant.  And one day you will be the establishment, so remember this.

You are leaving now with a great achievement.  Please don’t think you are just going to get jobs and make money now, important though that is.  You are really going to make a nation and we all need you to succeed and we are all behind you.

Thanks so much for listening. South Africa is truly blessed to have such talent as you emerging into the world of work.  For all our sakes, be brave, be confident and make a difference.  Nothing reduces the odds against you like ignoring them.  Good luck, you can do it.

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