Recently I was lucky to be asked, via the brilliant Rachel Botsman, to say a few words at the conclusion of the school year. A traditional evening of speeches and awards, of dux and mensch, of beautiful music, welcoming parents and unexpectedly funny teachers. It was, how shall I say… so much more than I had expected. I also didn’t expect to be asked to share my little speech. But, here is it is. (I have removed the swearing).
Thanks again Mr Watt and Ms Favero.
Jan 4, 2018. NYC.
“Good evening all,
It is such a great pleasure to be here, between you, and a very long and well-deserved summer holiday. When I was talking with Mr Watt, I asked how long he wanted me to speak for this evening and he said ‘Oh, 10 to 15 minutes or so. Ideally 12.”
So I’m going to speak for 12 minutes.
I am aware that 12 minutes can be a very long period of time. Especially as I have 12 minutes to tell you about the world, your futures, and how to become captains of industry, how to make your families proud. That’s a lot to get in to 12 minutes.
But the truth is — your life and career is probably going to be just as messy and confusing as mine.
My secret formula, and one I use everyday (even though it didn’t work so well at school) is 3 words: “I don’t know“
It’s OK to say that. It would be quite helpful if some of our politicians were allowed to say it. Because it would mean they’d be allowed to learn, rather than being expected to know everything.
I hope no-one here thinks that you ever get to stop learning. It might not be quite like at school, but one of the most important and most interesting things about everyday life as an adult is that we will (if we look) find something we don’t know, and we can learn from it.
There are things your parents and teachers probably want for you. Certainty. Stability. Security — these are desirable traits but really quite unnatural. You will have to work so hard to acquire them and yet you never really know if you have them. Whereas you can embrace the certainty of uncertainty and work with it. No one really knows much after all. I don’t know what is going happen. None of us ever do. Even when you’re all grown up. :o
I wanted to be an artist at school. I studied Fine Art at Oxford University (a very long time ago). On my first day we were in the hall and being told that only 2 out of 20 of us would become proper artists. I think they were trying to appeal to our competitive side, but I gave up trying to be a ‘proper artist’ that day. And I think it was rather useful to lose that very concrete idea of who I was going to be.
Since then I have also learnt that I’m not very good as a designer, or a computer engineer. I am a rubbish project manager. I was fired from a rug shop. And a fruit farm. I was a terrible cocktail barman — but I liked it so I did it for 5 years. Most likely to annoy my parents. Our first dotcom business went from being worth a million dollars to being worth nothing.. Let us just say I’m not a perfectionist. Not a specialist.
So, you should know that being very good at specifically one thing is a choice. It’s not an obligation.
The great early scientists weren’t scientists, they were hobbyists. With passion. The same with explorers. What matters is not really what you do, but how you feel about it. If you are passionate everything is different, if you care about what you do.
So love what you do. You are so privileged in being able to make that decision. Make the most of it. Even if you don’t know what it is you love.
It’s been 13 years since I joined Google. Every time i enter the country I write “Designer” in the little box — even though I’m not a very good designer. It is sweet that they want me to be a ‘something’.
At work each day I get to play with poets, psychologists and pop musicians and quantum computers yet I still don’t quite know what I do. I’ve decided that is fine. It’s all learning. That’s what I love. Generally I love learning what I am a bit rubbish at. Being one thing doesn’t mean you will always be that — you can always be something else, something more, something less.
I’m an author, but not really. I’m a creative director at Google, but, not really. I’m a technologist, I’m an activist, I’m an artist. I get to speak at conferences all over the world, I’m on a board of directors for the Biennale and I’m also on Tinder. People put me on lists with other interesting people, and I hope it’s not just because I am transgender, or because I am queer, or because I talk about mental health issues or Neurodiversity. I think it is because the fact that the world is uncertain makes what we choose to make of it that much more interesting. And very few people are going to tell you that, even though it’s true.
What do I make? Well we use digital technology to help tell stories. Currently that is mainly using AI and AR because they are the most interesting to me. We are working on projects with the Royal Ballet in London, Queensland Opera, the ACO and Kaldor Projects. We just launched a game that lets you conduct a computer orchestra with your webcam. We did a documentary called Belongings with SBS, a play called Oracles with Punchdrunk, an exhibition called Amaravati with the British Museum, we created Hangouts in History (education), and performed Dream40 with the RSC, we built buildwithchrome.com (which is LEGO!), and created a Web Lab with London’s Science Museum, We made a film called Life in a Day with Ridley Scott and the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (with the LSO). We, has always been more than just me. I am not quite sure what I do. However I am proud of working on the Art Project (now called Google’s Cultural Institute). A special passion is making books, I’ve always been passionate about that. The latest ones are deconstructed for the web, and the project has been going for 4 years. It’s called Editions at Play, and it won a 2018 Peabody award for digital storytelling.
Why do we do that? I don’t know. But they let us. We take what the web or phones can or will be able to do — and we make things. Often art, because culture is more focused on the output than the economic value. Certainly we try never to know what we are doing.
Doubt is a core part of the creative process. The scientific revolution was based on enquiry, not certainty, based on looking and seeing and hypothesising and then testing that hypothesis.
Here’s the bad news. I’ve already said you can do whatever you want — but it will probably never feel like that. You will always feel the pull of something safer, something more understandable, less challenging. Being in a place where you push yourself, means you will find yourself in spaces that make you uncomfortable — you will be outside your comfort zone. Whether that’s having to learn new skills, or move cities, or learn new software, or giving public talks! Or something way better than that — something I can’t think of right now. Maybe you become Secretary General of the UN?
Do you think those people feel comfortable in their job? Never.
Do you think they really know what they’re doing?
How confident are your parents in their lives?
Are they sure they made the right choices?
Do they know what’s going to happen next?
(Maybe don’t ask your parents these questions while they’re driving you home. )
Actually that is why Culture as a fluid phenomenon is so interesting — because we genuinely don’t know, and it is notoriously hard to make predictions about. That’s a good thing.
One thing you can do is listen to yourself — when I get to a place where everything is lovely that, to me, feels like a good time to move on, to keep growing and learning. In my life I have had to learn to live as a man, and much later as a woman. The adults in my life said I was a little boy, or rather they assumed I was a boy, no one actually asked. And because I looked like a boy I had to do boy stuff like rugby and boy scouts and go to an all boys school and be head boy and be all, you know, boy-y.
I quite liked being a boy. It’s kind of easy. But eventually I realised that I had to move on. I think your generation are the first that will understand that that kind of change is OK too. That it is OK for people like me simply to be people like me. I am so grateful to you for that. Thank you.
Without movement you cannot grow. So breakout of your comfort zones, and when you do use your voice. You have integrity and values, and you will have the opportunity to share them and shape the world the way you would like it to be shaped. It will probably turn out that you are some of the very few people who can do this.
A lot of people don’t seem to like change. Especially as they get older.
But change is interesting, and inevitable. For example we just lost our Managing Director at Google, again. The life expectancy of a CEO is 2–3 years — which I think makes them pretty flakey.
Yet I like the way those very senior people keep changing — they don’t stop moving. [btw this is not a metaphor about sharks]. It’s OK to not stop moving, not to settle; to keep your brain alive and your eyes alert and keep being passionate; for as long as you can.
And it won’t all go your way. You will lose student elections, and lose partners in love. Sorry. It will happen. I’ve been fired. I’ve left jobs. I’ve been dumped. I’ve retrained. I’ve sculpted jobs from within, until no-one quite knows what I do.
Sometimes however — the big awful thing — that unfortunate event, the one that pushes you out of that comfortable place, that will be the thing you think about when you’re my age. And it will have been a good thing. Sometimes that change is what happens to you when you are my age :)
I mean you probably need some luck as well.
And Hard Work. (don’t worry parents & teachers) I am sure hard work helps lots and lots, but there’s a bit of luck going on out there as well. So don’t think it’s your fault. Sometimes it really is bad luck.
It is likely that some of you, in twenty years or so, will probably find yourself in my shoes. Talking briefly to a remarkable generation of talented, creative, brilliant minds and trying to find words… to inspire.
All the inspiring words you ever read on Instagram will have come from minds that weren’t quite sure. That is an OK thing to carry with you. You need that uncertainty to be your best self.
It seems strange to say, inspirationally, that you will fall, you will find life unfair, you will find life hard — but keep failing, don’t stand still, learn to keep learning, try to do what you love, and love those around you. And the world will be MUCH more interesting for it.
My very best wishes and good luck.