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A really remarkable High School Graduation ceremony

Yesterday afternoon I had the privilege of speaking at a high school graduation ceremony.   At this time of year, these are happening all over North America, as hundreds of thousands of young people mark this important milestone in their life journeys.   But I wasn’t in Canada or the USA.   I was in Beijing, China – and all the graduating students were Chinese nationals, attending schools belonging to an extraordinary network within this amazing country.

The Concord Colleges of Sino-Canada are in Beijing, Shenzhen, Anhui, Hunan and Guiyang.  They are the brainchild of Dr Francis Pang, an amazing businessman who has dedicated his life to international education.    At these schools in China, the young people graduate not only with their Chinese national qualifiaction of secondary education, but also the high school graduation certificate of New Brunswick, Canada.  And they also have the opportunity to participate in The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award, because Dr Pang and his team believe that what goes on in the classroom forms only one part of a fully rounded education – something only now being appreciated within China, whose schools have concentrated for years on rote learning and a rather dry academic curriculum.   

Taking part in the Award has a particular nuance to it in China.  Several students told me that, because they come from families with only one child, the Award provides them with an opportunity to build the sort of close relationships with their friends outside the classroom that they imagine brothers and sisters do in other countries – In particular, the Adventurous Journey allows them to argue, bicker and make decisions together in a way they really can’t do anywhere else.   

So, yesterday, I joined nearly 500 young graduands, their teachers and very, very proud parents in the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square.
Here’s the text of my address:

Principals, teachers, graduands, parents, special guests…

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.   It’s a real privilege to be here in Beijing and to have the opportunity to greet you.   I’ve been asked if, as is usual at these kind of events, I might share with you some advice for the future.

I’m flattered to be asked, of course. But talking to you, members of the Millennial generation, about the challenges you face is difficult. It feels rather presumptuous for this Generation Xer to lecture you. Having grown up with high-tech, you’re probably very well suited to thrive and become leaders in the brave new connected world without the advice of people like me.   I come from the generation whose legacy is that we’ll be leaving the planet in a considerably worse state than when we found it. The world is in the midst of cultural and economic upheaval. Perhaps that’s nothing new, but it is challenging, to say the least. There’s so much information, so many choices, so much distraction. Just those things alone present more complexity than any generation has ever had to deal with.

But perhaps wisdom really does come from real-world experience and maybe it’s relevant to every generation. So, in preparing to speak to you today, I wondered to myself what I would want to tell my teenage self.   And here’s what I came up with…

If you want to achieve great things, you have to do great work. If your goal is to just skate by in life, you can probably pull that off without much effort. But if you want to accomplish some great things that give your life meaning, you’ll have to do great work. You only get out of this life what you put into it.

Take big risks. Roll the dice. Jump into the deep end of the pool. (I’d like to say “dive”, but I can’t quite bring myself to go head first.). Throw caution to the wind. Be fearless. Success in your career and wider society are a function of your willingness to face your fears and take chances. That simple but powerful truth is probably the most important piece of advice anyone can give you.

Travel. Always seek to broaden your experience. Perhaps the best stroke of luck I ever had was being invited by a youth organisation in the UK to become their volunteer international representative when I was in my mid-twenties. The opportunities I had to travel and meet people from other cultures with vastly different life experiences completely changed the way I viewed the world.  And it paved the way for me becoming Secretary General of what is now viewed as the world’s leading Youth Achievement Award.

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s a certain time factor related to all goals, strategies, and achievements. The bigger the objective, the bolder the strategy, the more rewarding the accomplishment, the longer it takes, generally speaking. That runs contrary to our attention deficit culture and our growing addiction to instant gratification. You need to fight that real-time tug to achieve long-term results.

There’s a certain balance to the equation of life. In school, you learn that there’s symmetry in the world. Every force has an equal and opposite reaction. Chemical equations must balance. Supply and demand are intimately related. Life is no different. It’s full of trade-offs and cause and effect relationships. You’ll never get something for nothing. Everything has a price. First you do the work, then you get rewarded. You give, then you get. Those equations appear throughout your career, your life, the business world, everything.

You probably take yourself too seriously. Children have enormous egos. They think everything revolves around them. That self-centred worldview is essential to survival. But in adulthood, it can be a real problem. Maturity is very much about developing empathy for others, about understanding their needs and wants, what drives and motivates them. I am still trying to grow up.

Try not to make self-limiting assumptions based on limited experience. When you’re young, there’s a temptation to be headstrong, to make sweeping decisions based on limited information. For example, it’s popular these days to romanticise entrepreneurship, but it’s not for everyone. Keep your options open.

Real success takes real relationships in the real world. The Internet has definitely levelled the playing field. And social networks enable you to connect with virtually anyone. But if you have real aspirations, you’ll need to develop real relationships with real people in real time.

Have faith that things will work out for you.  Or, to put it another way, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, then it isn’t the end…”

I wouldn’t think of depriving any of you of the chance oflearning these lessons in your own good time. If you want to throw caution to the wind as I suggested earlier, you should probably ignore everything I’ve just said.   I suspect that the twenty year old me would not have listened to the fifty year old me with much interest. 

But there’s an old expression that I think still applies in our information society: “Forewarned is forearmed.” 

And, after all, you can never go back.



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