The snakes and ladders of our lives

Address to the University of Queensland graduating class

– December 12, 2013

Chancellor, Acting Vice-Chancellor, members of Senate, members of staff, distinguished guests, graduates of 2013, parents, ladies and gentlemen.

I have a question: why are you here?

If I were to ask every single graduate why you are here tonight, I’d receive a range of responses.

You’d tell me you’re here because you wanted to celebrate, to commemorate or maybe just draw a line under a few very important years of your life. You’d tell me you are here because you were graduating and, like turning 18, getting a drivers licence or taking your first overseas trip, it’s an event worthy of some note.

You might say you’re here because you wanted to join with that bunch of strangers you met during first semester first year who ended up becoming your friends. Or perhaps you’re here because you studied hard, slaving away over textbooks and dreading group assignments, and that you earned the right.

Or maybe you’d simply tell me you arrived here tonight because you caught the number 66 bus from town.

They seem like different answers. Varied. But they are not.

They have something in common. They all involve active, conscious choices.

Those answers are not about luck, or about serendipity or about things entirely outside your control. Stop for a moment to ponder the intricate web of existence and experience that has brought you here, those things that are entirely – 100% – outside your sphere of influence. Those things matter.

Many graduation speeches talk to the decisions you will make as you step further out into the world. And, for sure, you will make choices that seem like a good idea at the time but turn out bad; you will make choices that seem like a bad idea and end up worse. You will catch the number 66 bus and meet the love of your life.

But tonight, I’d like to talk to you briefly about those things we cannot control.

So, back to my original question.

Why are you here? I’d jump for joy if any of you told me you were here simply because your parents read to you every night when they put you to bed until you turned 10. I’d also – just as an aside – stop to shake your parents’ hands while I was at it. I’d smile to know that you are here tonight because your parents were poor, or rich. I’d be honoured to know that you found yourself here primarily because you’re disabled.

But we don’t think about those things much. We like to consider ourselves conscious actors in our very own play, making choices that guide our lives – for good or for bad.

Storytellers call this, agency – an action or intervention producing a desired effect. Our stories are replete with characters making conscious choices and acting on decisions within their control.

It’s why Dorothy takes that very first step on the yellow brick road. She isn’t pushed. She chooses to put one ruby slipper encased foot in front of the other and take a walk through Oz.

It’s why Thrones get Gamed; it’s why Harry Potters; it’s how Nemo gets found.

It’s why in Fifty Shades of Grey, the main character… well, let’s save that discussion for another time, shall we.

Good storytellers know that audiences relate to characters making active choices.

I’m here because of a number of choices I have made in my life. I chose to work hard enough at school to meet the entry requirements for a Bachelor of Arts (Journalism) here at University of Queensland. I chose to study hard enough (barely hard enough, mind you) to graduate from that degree. I’m here tonight because I chose to accept the invitation to speak.

I stand before you because I caught the number 66 bus from town.

But more than that, and much more importantly than that, I am here because of a number of things entirely outside of my control.

I am here because I am ugly and I’m disabled. I was born with a fist-sized tumour in the middle of my face and damaged legs. The tumour ran rampant across my face creating bumps and scars, and pushing my eyes to the side of my head, like a fish. My legs were both so badly mangled that they’d require eventual amputation and meant that if I wanted to get around I’d need to get used to wearing artificial legs.

These were the things outside my control:

I was born.

I was born, different.

By the time I turned four doctors decided I needed to have a major operation that would reshape my head, remake my face, rebuild my nose and move my eyes close to where they should be. But, of course, there was a risk. Doctors told my parents that along with the usual risks of any surgery there was a one in four chance I might die.

These were the things outside my control:

Doctors asked my parents to approve an operation that would radically remake my face and give me the best chance of a normal life but risk killing me.

Doctors asked, and my parents said yes.

They are the snakes and ladders of my life. They are the things that – just as much as my conscious decisions – see me here with you tonight.

Our lives are often a see-saw between things we can’t control and things we can, between decisions we make and decisions that are made for us.

If I were to offer one piece of advice to you it would be to find a balance, to make peace with the see-saw. Ask yourself what are the things that have shaped you, that you have no control over. Once answered, start to understand those things you can’t control, the parts of your body you find uncomfortable, the parts of your upbringing you find embarrassing – and acknowledge the important part they have played in your life.

Most of you are graduating from degrees in tourism or in communications, with a smattering of arts/journalism graduates thrown in for good measure. I have no experience in tourism, except as a consumer, but I do in communications. One thing I think you will share across industries over coming decades will be change.

Big hotels will get bigger. Boutique hotels will get boutiquier. Big newspapers will get smaller. Smaller news websites will get big enough to buy boutique hotel chains of their very own.

Your professional lives will be subject to the whims of creative destruction. That change will add energy and weight to the choices you make. It will inform and reform them on an almost daily – and sometimes hourly – basis.

Make peace with those things, celebrate them; enjoy them. Understand the power that comes from knowing those things that are entirely out of your control that have shaped your life – or continue to shape your life. Name those things, accept them, understand how they have shaped your life. And draw inspiration from that knowing.

Choose to walk the yellow brick road by all means, or to run it, or to crawl on all fours, squinting the sun away because you had a really big night the night before. Choose to stand still and watch others pass by just so you can learn from their comings and goings. Do any of those things – or don’t, I’m not the boss of you.

But in a world full of yellow brick roads that turn a corner and suddenly end, that loop back around on themselves, that turn from yellow brick to bitumen and then to gold again in the space of a few paces – never forget the tornado – which was entirely out of your control – that brought you to the start of that path in the first place.

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