Firstly, thank-you for the opportunity to speak to you today.
Graduation speeches can become vehicles for personal sentimentalism. I’m not here to lecture you, despite the lectern.
I’m not here to bore you with tales of what I wish I’d done, or wish I’d been told when I was sitting in your seat with all the promise and anticipation of a graduate. What I would like to do is simply share with you some stories based on my career — which, despite graduating from the very same degree which you have just completed, I spent working in jobs both related, relating to anything but, Human Movements.
There are a couple of common themes and occurrences that will run through the heart of these stories. The first is the colour grey. The second is human relationships. And the third is an understanding of failure.
In his seminal classic and ode to disaffected youth On the Road, American author Jack Kerouac wrote ‘I had nothing to offer anybody but my own confusion’. This may seem a bit of an odd statement to be offering to you at the end of three years of a university education aimed at building your knowledge and preparing you for your chosen careers.
But let me explain.
I arrived at my current position as CEO of independent think‐tank the Eidos Institute through a profound belief in the motivating power of uncertainty. Which fits in well with my current job description, given that most people, including my own family, are uncertain about what it is one actually does in a think tank. I keep hoping they’ll pick it up one day.
I had chosen Human Movements (the only course I selected on the QTAC form) ‐ which at that stage was a fairly pioneering course at The University of Queensland as a degree ‐ because I was good at playing tennis and wanted to do something with sport.
I also had an attachment to the idea of using it to work in outdoor education, interweaving it with an education degree. My teaching career was short‐lived. Following my graduation, I resigned from teaching (conventional ‘teaching’ at least) before I had even begun.
Looking back on my career, I can break it up pretty clearly into three phases of development.
The first is practice — which I think of as Praxis… a period of practising ideas.
The second is policy.
The third is research and ideas.
All were defined in various ways by a belief in the colour grey — or in other words, a desire not to limit myself to a black and white viewing of the world.
During my 20’s, I spent the majority of my time working at a grassroots level with young people at‐risk, or delinquents as some would say. I had the opportunity to work in Australia, the US and the UK. I got to set‐up a school for expelled students.
It was a period in my life which was shaped by a number of personal factors, including the fact that during this period, my eldest brother was struggling with the consequences of a drug conviction. That was a difficult period for a white middle-class family.
I was spending increasing amounts of time in paid and unpaid jobs working with the disadvantaged, the marginal and the outcasts. My pathway was for some reason intersecting with my lived experience
I always remember Richard Branson and his assertion that there was little difference between an entrepreneur and a delinquent young person. The delinquent walks up the street and works out which houses are best to break into. The businessman walks up the street and looks at which businesses are the best ones to take over. In some situations, it’s only a fine line dividing the life choice.
As difficult as it was for both myself and my family, and the young people and families I worked with, during this period, it spawned my life‐long rejection of ‘black and white’ thinking. I learnt about failure and I learnt about how I began to suspect what I now hold to be true — that those who reduce life’s complexities to black and white, to right versus wrong, good versus evil, are missing out on one of life’s vital life‐bloods.
It’s never either/or — it’s both/and. There is always a third alternative to create and/or consider.
After ten years of grassroots community and education development work here in Australia and overseas, I was getting tired. Towards the end of the decade, I had a job setting up a school in a youth detention centre. I remember the day, sitting in a cell talking with a young person recently convicted for murder, and thinking — I’m not sure I have the energy to keep doing this job well anymore.
Then the phone rang.
It was Wayne Goss’s Education department asking if I was interested in implementing some of my work on a grassroots level on a statewide scale — specifically, alternative schooling models. In a few weeks, I was State manager of the Alternative Schools program, based in Central Office, with an $11,500,000 budget, 245 teaching positions and 15 regional projects. The previous budget I was responsible for was for $1500!
The second part of my career — beginning when I was about 30 seemed to be to take some of the pragmatic aspects of my 20’s into a public domain. It principally involved learning about and doing, public policy.
Policy is complex and political. Public policy holds out ‐ the perhaps elusive promise ‐ of better outcomes through better decision‐making processes. Public policy is not a predictable science because policy is inextricably linked to politics1. And politics is about relationships.
The power of human relationships transcends ideological, cultural and social boundaries. By investing in human relationships, change IS possible on a large scale. It’s a belief reflected in the operational stance of the Eidos Institute, which values people, networks and connecting leaders and knowledge over partisan politics and ideological power plays.
After ten years of public service and policy work (the work Paul Keating would say was more often than not done by ‘dead pigeons’), I was becoming a little too cynical. I had just turned 35. I remember the day sitting at my desk on the fourteenth floor of Mary Street and thinking — I’m not sure I have the belief to keep doing this job well anymore.
Then the phone rang.
It was from the University of Queensland to see if I would be interested in setting up a new Centre, later to become the UQ Boilerhouse, bringing together the seven faculties research work and making it pragmatic and useful for local communities — as well as policy and politically influential.
I applied for the job and spent the next five exciting years setting up a university centre. Aside from all the individual projects centres undertake, we had one large‐scale project between the university and the community — the Goodna Service Integration Project. It raised millions of dollars in research grants, trained 100+ people in inter‐professional leadership, set up community hubs, and won national awards. It was a very exciting time — on reflection — it was only successful because the time was right.
Then, just as everything was going along nicely…
The phone rang.
It was to check out my interest in applying for a position to build a network of universities and, using their combined intellectual capital, to contribute to solving national public policy challenges.
I actually wasn’t ready at all to change positions. I loved my job and we were doing well. We had a rhythm going. It also meant leaving permanent appointments, tenure, and fortnightly salaries for the first time in my career. I had three children under 13. I had no real training in running a business and relying on pretty important things like our own cashflow to pay the bills!
But in the end, I took the job. Two reasons. The UQ Vice-Chancellor of the day let me know that tenure actually doesn’t exist — he wasn’t joking. I also had a clear visualization of sitting in my old office six months down the track — wondering what it would have been like had I taken it.
Over the next 14 months, we established Australia’s first independent public policy think tank, driven by universities, called Eidos. From an initial group of 5 universities, we now have almost 15 — including four South African universities. We’ve done about $10M worth of work — involving hundreds of academics, consultants and students ‐ maybe forty plus projects — all focused on improving public policy.
And we’ve been able to pay the bills!
The last ten years have been a period of my life where I have begun to realize the power of ideas… and work on the interplay of ideas for the public good. The most exciting aspect of this period is that neither of these entities existed prior, and ‘touch wood’, they are as strong, and vulnerable, as any networked institute and organisation can be.
The greatest learning I drew from this period of my life? An understanding of when, and how, to let go of innovation and ideas.
So what did have all these relationships and experiences during, and following, my time here at UQ studying the HM degree teach me:
- We make the road by walking.
Theory emanates from practice. Knowledge grows from and is a reflection, of our experience. Steve Jobs delivered a graduation speech in 2005 where he said ‘you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward’.
There are two ways of looking at life. You can spend a lot of time trying to look ahead at pathways most often shrouded in mist. You can try and Google map your future, attempting to navigate challenges and barriers before they’ve arisen. Or, you can make the road by walking, get a refund on your GPS and accept the unexpected.
Reaching your destination and making sense of your pathways after they’ve been carved reveals patterns and meaning impossible to contemplate or comprehend poised as the majority of you are now, at the beginning of your life journey.
2. Everyone fears failure. But breakthroughs depend on it.
I have come to understand that setbacks and deviations, barriers and roadblocks make life interesting and worth living.
I want to share one last personal story with you.
I failed my major teaching subject in final year Human Movements. In fact, in that particular semester, from memory, I received one of every grade! It had a bit of an impact on my GPA! It was during the difficult period of my family’s challenges but it also related to my belief systems around teaching.
But for whatever reason, I felt the devastation and public nature of failure.
I remember driving home with the acute awareness that my friends were moving on and being appointed as teachers and exercise physiologists in the coming year. And I remained still.
But something clicked. It followed the usual denial, anger, bargaining, resignation and emotionally flat stages. But I focused. In the next year, I did another degree, on top of completing the HM degree and I got a job setting‐up Queensland’s first youth worker-run home for teenagers just out of prison without a place to stay.
A bunch of kids lives were either saved or simply made better from that experience. My path was somewhat set for the period.
In 2008 Harry Potter author JK Rowling told a group of graduating Harvard graduates that failure taught her far more about life than passing examinations ever did.
As recent and successful graduates from a higher education degree, I imagine you would have spent a great deal of your time running from the threat of failure. Pulling caffeine‐fuelled all-nighters to finish assignments. Writing essays on buses. Juggling part‐time jobs with lectures. Juggling lectures with jugs of beer. The threat of failure is, in many respects, a universal motivator.
Experiencing and embracing success and failure, however, is, in my experience, far more powerful. Entrepreneurship and surviving life thrives on failure as much as success.
3. Be able to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty
At Eidos Institute we are working towards a future defined by the continued relevance of our voices to the process of running the country.
While this vision may sound grandiose, I am reminded every day that we are only able to achieve any collective change at all, through the power of human relationships.
It is through a building of trust and recognition of common humanity, which spans global borders, cultural and social barriers and generations, that large‐scale change can be achieved. Combined, our reach is far greater than the sum of our part.
Our collective knowledge regarding the state of the world is rapidly increasing. During everyday activities, we deal with new media and communications systems which can transmit more information than either you or I could process in an entire lifetime.
It is ironic, then, that as our knowledge increases, our certainty about our shared futures decreases. We’re collectively uncertain. We’re uncertain about the right answer to the climate change debate. We’re uncertain about political leadership. We’re uncertain about the correct moral and ethical responses to far‐off war, famine and disease. Nothing is black and white.
It is also true that during the 1950’s we were pretty collectively uncertain that we could land on the moon.
Uncertainty equates to possibility. The flip side of uncertainty is freedom and opportunity.
And as I enter my fourth decade of work — I am finding myself returning to the power of sport in international policy and politics and in particular, the ways in which sport can be used as a tool for positive social change across the world.…I’ve been learning a lot from South Africa. I’ve also been thinking about how we can connect our collective ideas for good at the global level. But more on that next time.
Today, I would like to reiterate Jack Kerouac and offer you my confusion. I would like to wish you uncertain adventures. If you’re not feeling like you’re failing in the deep end some stage soon, my best advice is to re‐evaluate.
Thank you very much, and goodnight.
HMS Graduation Dinner, The University of Queensland [14 October 2011]
Since the speech, I have been fortunate to collaborate with a cast of authentic, generous, insightful, wise, open-minded and witty leaders and entrepreneurs.
Together we have built the Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange connecting young indigenous leaders between Australia and South Africa in partnership with Rugby Australia’s Wallabies, The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Australian Volunteering.
Another collective has worked together to build Mindhive, a global insight ecosystem that helps individuals and organisations gain insight into complex problems. Mindhive is a community of 10,000+ thought leaders. The power of many.