Somehow I was recently invited to do the peculiarly-named but rather important Occasional Address at the end of graduation ceremony for the wonderful Sydney College of Art's class of 2016 - aka the 'Steve Jobs bit'. It was a great honour and surprisingly fun. I wrote this quite windy, worthy, speech. But then I completely failed to read it and instead 'improvised loosely' on these themes so this isn't what I said at all - but, well, I wrote it anyway...
I’d like to start by acknowledging the gadigal people of the eora nation on whose land we are meeting. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be here today.
I’d like to acknowledge the presiding officer, the faculty dean [Professor Rhodes], staff, our distinguished guests, graduates, (congratulations), their families and their friends.
You are amongst your friends, your families, you have only minutes to go before we can pour out of those doors and head off into a beautiful Friday afternoon. I imagine many of you will have a drink. And then?? Well and then what exactly? There is a most definitive split between today and tomorrow. Today you say goodbye to a world filled with people employed to inform you, encourage you, to educate even, who mark your success and award you certificates. A world where what you had to do 'to succeed' was probably written down somewhere. Almost certainly with bullet points. From tomorrow there are no more bullet points. Or if there are... run.
Tomorrow is a world where your talents and abilities are unleashed. You can, quite literally, go wherever your passions take you. So that's exciting right?
It is very humbling to be asked to do this. I don’t really know quite why as I have, I am afraid, never been able to adequately explain what I do or why I am allowed to do it.
I do have some quite strong ideas - I am a great believer in failure for example. But the idea of standing up here and telling you to go forth and fail! Well, it doesn’t exactly sound like a call to leadership… but I’m going to do it anyway. Your parents are going to love it.
I’m going to tell you what your future holds.
It holds ignorance, uncertainty, and change. And I don’t mean that in a BAD way, by the way. Don’t be scared of it. I want you to embrace those words like lovers. To reclaim them for you. Make them super positive. Try to wake everyday awestruck by your own ignorance, and thrilled by a world that doesn’t know anything. Most people will tell you to follow your heart. Which is also good advice, but if you are uncertain where your heart is headed then a) that makes you completely normal and b) just keep changing up until you work it out.
Ignorance will let you do things that you really shouldn't do. Uncertainty will push you forwards, ideally with curiosity, and hopefully never hold you back, Change is the best thing about being alive, until you hit about 35, at which point you just wish everything would STOP.
So, as artists, your career is probably going to be just like mine. Messy, meandering, unfocused and confusing, especially to your family. "Career" can mean the job you do, or jobs, or just whatever you devote your life to achieving - it can also mean Career. To career. And frankly life for the next ten years or so is going to be lot more like the second one than the first one. As you swerve and skid wildly from optimism to disaster over and over again try to remember to not panic.
I generally remember my art degree as an extremely pleasant place to spend three years. On my first day we were told that 10% of us would make it to become practising professional artists. Only two of us would “make it".
There were 20 of us. And I didn’t fancy those odds. In fact I may have given up trying to become an artist that very day. I have always preferred to set my sights low and then wildly overachieve and this sounded like significantly hard work. In fact 3 of my year are still practising artists. A couple are rather famous.
And their trick? If you really want to know? Stamina. And self-sufficiency. Basically failing to get a paying job until everyone else had given up. So if you REALLY want to be an artist? Just keep being an artist and eventually, eventually, everyone else will give up and go home.
And if you don’t know? Then just keep trying to identify and do things that make you happy … and eventually everyone else gives up and you are left doing a job doing things that make you happy. And then people ask you to do talks about it. Meanwhile I have done so many projects that don't make sense that they are beginning to coalesce into what you might call 'a body of work'. It seems, I might, somewhat accidentally, be an artist after all. Simply by default.
I talk a lot. Maybe that's what I do? Somehow I’m speaking at the writers festival without ever writing a book, I’ve produced a few plays now despite lacking a single theatrical bone, I’m on a board of directors without having any great idea what that involves, I’ve been an unsuccessful computer programmer, I helped found an early dot com that crashed spectacularly, I was, and remain a terrible cocktail barman.
Every time i enter the country I write “Designer” in the little box and yet I am rather worried that I am really not a very good designer. Perhaps not a designer at all. And despite the fact that every day I get to play with psychologists and pop musicians and quantum computers I still don’t quite know what I do. But I’ve decided that is FINE. A lot of what happens, occurs because generally when asked I say "yes". This can be mistaken for confidence, but really, like so much in life, it is often because I don't want to appear rude.
The more I think about it the less sense it makes, but the more value it contains. Somehow. And that is one thing about being artists, you have the ability to create value out of nothing, and to make nonsense out of clay, you can make poetry from plastic cups, and spring tears or provoke laughter, or somehow capture big existential doubts without quite knowing how or what you are doing. Like many magic powers it is quite hard to know what to do with this, or even just to be OK with that. Instead, like me, you will probably try and get a proper job. Where things make sense, and can be explained to people at dinner parties. So as that will probably happen - here is my one useful piece of advice: don't freelance when you have low self-esteem. You'll take anything. i.e. when a friend at Google asks you to come in for a month to do some Powerpoint, don't leave your dignity at reception, don't eat a years supply of M&Ms in the first 5 days. 1 month might turn to 3, turn to 6, turn into me. Turn into a group called creative lab - where we are doing experiments - and now I’ve been there a decade. I didn’t quit, I didn’t get fired, and I did get lucky. Be awake to luck. I am sure hard work helps, but there’s a bit of luck going on out there as well. Sorry. It's true. Luck and timing. Lucky timing.
I like to imagine that most people's career paths kind of match the undulating wobble of mild successes, gentle failures, and unplanned eventualities that I have experienced. According to John Lennon life is what happens when you make other plans - and funnily enough that is what happens. In childhood we call this trial and error. In business we call it emergent strategy. In marketing we call it failing forward. Basically if life gives you lemons, make lemonade and find out who got the vodka. Or build an app that let’s people buy fresh lemons. Or paint lemons. Until life gives you something else - like cherries. And it will. It’s never ALL lemons.
I have a friend who stayed up until 4am baking cherry muffins, over and over, obsessively, until they were right. He didn't tell anyone. He failed furtively. He failed frequently. But his muffins were awesome. He inspired me. Not to bake. I can't bake. Not even to try really hard. But, you know, to keep doing what I love doing, and to keep failing, which, in my case worked out well for me. Generally my projects involve things that don't entirely go according to plan. Inspiring failures.
So I'm a fan of failure. My hairdresser continues to insist that for her failure is not an option. And to be honest, she's right. At a certain point, especially in hairdressing, failure is not an option. (Also, dentistry.) But for most of us failure is the only option. So it's worth making that word a friend.
I’m pretty sure I have to leave you with some magical truisms to live by. It worked for Tim Minchin and Steve Jobs. So here you go:
Treasure ignorance. Learn by doing. or Learn by pretending you know what you are doing. This is how you learn what you should never ever do.
Enjoy the uncertainty. This isn’t the end of learning, unless it is, in which case you have my intense sympathy. Always be learning. You can’t learn if you know stuff, so remember not to know anything. This is actually a very old idea. Socrates came up with it. So THAT old.
And finally, old age. However old you are you will always want to write back to a younger you and tell it the things you wish it had known. The 15 year old you. Or the 28 year old me. Actually the 15 year old me could do with some advice as well. I can guarantee that life will surprise you. It has surprised me just this year and I am very very old.
We always understand ourselves and see ourselves as if we are at the pointy end of life, the apex of our intense lived experience. Instead you are on page 47 of a really long book of you. Like Game of Thrones big. I am sure the first fifty pages have been a rip-roaring adventure, provocative, challenging, maybe even a little bit salacious.
But they should be just a taster. The next pages do not need to settle down. They are your pages. From this point no one will guide your hand, no one will be there to tell you what to write, so onto that blank page you go and I hope you fill it with wild stories of reckless abandon, and triumphs over adversity, and the odd walk of shame.
It is likely that some of you, in twenty years or so, will probably find yourself in my shoes. Talking to a remarkable generation of talented, creative, brilliant minds and trying to find words… to inspire. And you won't know what to say...
Maybe you’ll write that book. But in the meantime - Well Done. Enjoy your moment, you have earned it.
My very best wishes and good luck.