St Mary’s Prize Giving Speech 2012

This is the speech I gave at my old school’s prize giving ceremony. My son was landing in Perth at the time.

Congratulations on your awards and thank you for the honour in being invited to speak with you.

I asked a few friends to offer their advice to you on this night. And you might find their answers enlightening but probably not.

‘Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.’ and ‘Follow you gut’ were offered. One that made me laugh was ‘hopefully the teacher won’t point at you and say “Now children, this is what happens when you don’t do your homework”’.

But my favourite was ‘In 30 years’ time when you’re asked to make a speech make sure you’re getting paid for it.’ That is worthwhile advice but some speeches you’ll gladly make for free.

30 years ago, along with 60 or so classmates, I was one of you. Muddling through my teenage years; which were happy despite not knowing as much as I pretended. I possess 3 items that did not exist then. My mobile phone, the remote for my car and my ATM card. Letter writing was the closest we had to texting; we used keys to open car doors, and had no cash anyway.

Our year was the last year to not have a uniform. This was a bonus because the colour then was a disturbing brown obviously designed as a punishment. But our jeans were banned and we were told to get our hair cut. Most of us ignored these orders and for a while our punishment was a sending home until it clicked that this might be an incentive.

I think the school management was relieved to see us go as we were the last of the old ways and I think most of us felt the same. It was our time to move on anyway and whether you do so willingly or not is immaterial.

I wasn’t a great student, maths was a problem and I barely passed the Leaving. I did enough to get into Dundalk to study Engineering and within a few months I amazed myself by understanding and enjoying physics, calculus and statistics.

Do not limit yourself to what your parents, your teachers or even you think you can do. You can do much more than you realise – give yourself a break from doubt and let it happen.

30 years later and you live in a similar world to ours then – the same obsessions with sports, music or girls or whatever your preference is. Now we have a peaceful Northern Ireland as a reassuring presence and The Cold War is over. That fear we had of nuclear winter has been replaced by terrorist attacks and deadly viruses. And you have, as we did, a dreadful economy, buzzing like radio static ever present in the background.

Pay this no attention. Ignore it. You have no need to be concerned no matter what you are told or what you read. All you need to do is trust your instincts. You will know what to do and you’ll do it. Worry is totally useless and harmful to you. Just trust your instincts.

Be sceptical! How the hell do I know? Well, let me tell you where some of those 60 classmates are right now.

At a Healthcare Expo in Germany, I saw an ex-pupil of this school introduce Angela Merkel, in flawless German, to companies, one of which he owned. Another worked with Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles on DreamWorks films. Another worked as a graphic designer in San Francisco. The best artist in our class went on to overcome colour blindness to graduate as an engineer and found tech companies selling to Silicon Valley. One is a photographer. Another runs a telco here in Ireland. One lectures in a university in Scotland.  My first job was with a US engineering firm in Bray who after I left went on to hire two of my classmates in succession as engineers. St Mary’s has a good reputation out there.

But some of my former classmates did not cultivate such pleasant lives and they deal with daily addictions or other losses to their freedom. We don’t know what the future holds so trust your instincts and design your life to be happy not just to get a job.

30 years from now the world will have changed as much for you as it did for us. Do not take my word for it, be sceptical, research for yourself, find reliable sources.

A Harvard Professor of Psychology has research proving that right now is the safest time to be a human being. Your chances of dying a violent death are remote in comparison to even 50 or 60 years ago. You will hear a totally different slant from RTE, SKY and BBC because good news does not sell papers.

You, more than anyone in this room, will rebuild Ireland’s economy. I am sorry we messed it up for you, we’ll do what we can to help fix it. But if you trust your instincts you will be fine and you’ll be wiser because of our mistakes.

I have two final pieces of advice for you. Remember PACK and GENEROSITY.

PACK is used as a memory aid by parachutists, bungee jumpers, divers, life’s adventurers – which all of you are. They use it to make sure they survive whatever crazy thing they’re about to do.

P stands for PREVENT. Prevent what? Prevent bad things happening to you and others. Good example is; preventing the bungee jumper from breaking his neck by attaching the bungee cords correctly. But it can also mean preventing yourself from walking through a rough area at night.

A stands for AVOID or ABANDON. This means if you find yourself in the roughest part of town and in danger find the quickest way out. Or avoid making decisions when you are angry because they’re 100% guaranteed to be wrong. Although it might be a little late for the bungee-guy to avoid death just because he didn’t check the cord.

C stands for CULTIVATE. Cultivate the knowledge, skills and friendships that will keep you safe. How to tie a bungee cord. How to pack a parachute. The location of the dangerous areas. Who to go to for advice and help.

K stands for KEEP. You keep skills by practising them regularly. You make friends by being friendly regularly. Once you find you’re good at something keep practicing it. You’ll get better at it and it will feed back into helping you PREVENT trouble in the future.

So prevent and avoid the bad, cultivate and keep the good. And make sure you always check your own bungee cord.

Finally, be generous to yourself. Take a break from doubting yourself. If you want to be happy quickly, be generous to others, and give them a break too. I have friends now who were in first year when I was in sixth. Some were not so generous to themselves and they look a lot older now. But most thankfully are healthy and well because they were and continue to be generous to themselves and others.

You cannot predict your future but you can increase your chance of happiness by trusting your instincts, designing a life not a career, remembering PACK and being generous. Start Now.

Thank you for listening and congratulations once again. I wish you all long, happy and healthy lives. Thank you.

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