I had a wonderful night last night addressing the Graduating Class of 2017 at SAE. It was wonderful to see the smiles of the folks graduating, and as an educator, see all that hope in one room. This was the first time I gave a convocation speech and it was a great honour given all the interactions that I've had with SAE/Qantm.
I thought I'd make it available here for others
SAE/Qantm Graduating Class of 2017
Thank you for the introduction and for the opportunity to be here to address the 2018 graduating class. It really is an honour because I feel a connection with SAE/Qantm because of all the interactions I’ve had with students and teachers from this group.
But before I get into what I want to say today, I want to stop for a second and say congratulations. Each and every one of you should be extremely proud of yourselves today. Anyone can start a degree, but finishing one is difficult, and often gruelling. So let’s take a second and everyone please give these graduates a round of applause. They deserve it!
Finishing a degree can be extremely satisfying and rewarding, while simultaneously being terrifying. I hope each of you feel the former emotions, but I’m also sure that there’s enough of you in the audience that feel the latter as well. For the last three years, although life was tough, it was planned. You knew where you needed to be and what you needed to get done. But all of a sudden, that comfort is pulled right from under you. And one morning, you wake up panicking and wondering what you should do next. Take solace in the fact that you aren’t the only ones that have gone through that, and that you won’t be the last.
But this vulnerability can also be thrilling. Just as when you ask someone out on a first date and you don’t know what that answer will be, that rush of feeling terrified that the person will turn you down, horribly of course, and simultaneously feeling hopeful and seeing an incredible future unfold before you. That feeling opens doors to new possibilities by helping you imagine what your life could be like. It also helps you re-examine the things that are important to you in your life, helping you move forward.
The reality is, and this is the paradox, that it is the challenges that push us, the difficulties that make us reflect on our life and what we want, and the mistakes that help us grow. We are happiest and most productive when we are challenged and pushed to our limit. Because, without challenges, we stagnate.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why I feel I have any expertise on this. Well, as an evolutionary biologist and professor at UNSW, I’ve finished three degrees – an honours, a Master’s and a PhD – so I’ve felt what each of you have three different times and I still feel it when I come to the end of, or start, a new project.
But I didn’t start wanting to be a professor or an evolutionary biologist. I actually wanted to be a dentist. I actually wanted to be a paediatric dentist because I wanted to change the perspective the public, especially children, have of dentists. But it wasn’t meant to be as to get into dental college, you actually had to do well in first year biology, chemistry, and physics.
I’m not exactly sure why you need these degrees to be honest given that you’re not calculating the force necessary to extract a compacted molar given your arm strength, the friction between the chair and the patient while mixing a perfect batch of topical anaesthetic from scratch.
But the decision was made for me really given that I barely passed first year biology and chemistry while completely failing first year physics. And looking back, it was a blessing. Now, I don’t mean any offence to any dentists out there in the audience right now, but looking back now I can’t imagine what I was thinking. Dentistry is not for me and there’s no way I could spend my life looking into people’s mouths.
So you’re probably wondering how was it that I was set on this path that I’m on now? It was a third year course (that I took in my fourth year because I ended up flunking out of my first year – and of course tried to hide it from my parents) a third year course in animal behaviour that turned everything around for me. I was fascinated by studies that these people were doing to understand why animals were behaving the way they did. Utterly fascinated.
By total chance, a course that I selected simply to fill my schedule, set me on a completely different pathway. Three degrees later, with a move to the opposite side of the world (from Canada, if you were wondering where my accent is from), all for a temporary job as a postdoctoral researcher in hopes of getting a job in academia (which is not easy given the few institutions all over the world).
Not including anything prior to high school, I’ve now studied for 17 years before I became a professor at UNSW. And I can trace that all back to one experience in one course. Looking back, I couldn’t have imagined any of this, including being here today. But I tell this story because I think it’s important for students to understand that failure is okay. Allowing yourself to experience new things is okay. Questioning yourself and being confused about what you want to do is okay. In fact, all these things are perfectly normal. I’m more worried about the people that don’t experience these feelings because I wonder if they’re truly following their own dreams and ideals.
But I also gave you my background because I want to say that my profession also helps me have a slightly different perspective into education and humans in general. As an evolutionary biologist, I study how things were to understand how things are, to better be able to predict how things will be. It’s almost like being a historian of the natural world. And it’s pretty fun.
As an evolutionary biologist, I’m profoundly interested in how social interactions affect individuals from the genes they express, to the developmental decisions they make, to how they behave and the partners they choose. Much of my research has used invertebrates – different species of crickets and spiders – to explore how individuals use information about the world around them to make decisions about what they should do. You see, you can manipulate the worlds of crickets and spiders by changing what they hear and smell before they are mature, and as a result, you can change how these animals perceive the world.
Play more cricket calls and males think they are growing up in a world where they will need to aggressively compete for females, while females think they are coming into a world with many males to choose from. Provide no pheromones of females and male spiders think they’ll have to travel much further to try and find a mate. In each of these examples, their perception of what they think the world will be like changes how they invest in how big they are, how fast they develop, and how they act when mature.
The more I explored these animals the more I was fascinated by them. And the more I felt that some of what I was discovering in these simple animals could also explain what humans were doing and why.
In humans! You’re probably saying right now. As if! Those are bugs! But you’d be surprised how much we have in common with all the animals on this world.
You see, just like it is simple to manipulate the world of a cricket and spider by playing different sounds or changing the smells around them, it’s actually quite simple to manipulate how an individual human perceives the world. In fact, we do it to ourselves each day, and it’s through the single most important piece of technology that has changed our lives over the last decade. The mobile phone. Technology has changed how we interact with one another, the information we see, how we view ourselves relative to others, and even the people we choose as partners. It has so profoundly changed all of our lives that it wouldn’t be overstepping by saying that the mobile phone is the single most transformative technology in human history.
But this also makes it the most distressing and potentially damaging piece of technology. Because you see there is no single thing that can so quickly send you into a downward spiral of feelings of failure. With all the technology around us, one of the things we’re all faced with is seeing everyone else’s successes. And that’s one of the hardest things to watch. Because we wonder, where is my success?
Seeing the successful can be simultaneously inspiring and soul destroying. But the one important thing to remember is that these individuals did not become successful overnight. There was often years of work involved. Years of failure. Years of struggle. But you don’t see this and this is the biggest failure of social media – it doesn’t show what people had to overcome to be there.
On social media, all we see is Elon Musk’s success and wish that we could be like that. But we don’t see that he was born in extreme wealth which likely helped his progress, has a terrible relationship with his family, and has to start a new business every other month or so, questioning how happy he is in any one of his ventures. And we see everyone talking about Donald Glover as a genius, exploring the meaning behind his new video, but we don’t realise that probably one of the only reasons he is where he is today, is because Tina Fey hired him as a writer on 30 Rock because he was black, and affirmative action made him a free hire.
Everyone needs to overcome something – some more than others – but it’s overcoming something that makes us grow and it’s seeing the possibilities that help us succeed. This is why I feel that sharing my failures to demonstrate opportunities is more important than sharing my successes. It’s why I feel a need to tell the story of how I got here.
But I also feel it’s important for me to tell my story about where I’m going. And the answer to that is, I’m not sure. Despite the awards and fellowships I’ve won, and the honours I receive - like this one - I sometimes feel lost in a sea of options. And this is one of the other things that social media does, to the detriment of us all. Tinder shows us all the dates we could possibly have, Etsy shows us how uncreative we are, Facebook shows us how much fun we’re not having, and Instagram shows us how bad we look. Social media demonstrates a world of possibilities for everyone, leading us to question our own life and making it impossible to choose what is best for us.
I don’t envy any of you growing up in the current world where technology tells us how we should feel. And I truly fear what the world will be like for my children.
But this is where I feel it comes back to social interactions. It’s important to remember that humans evolved living in small social groups. And we talked. And we saw. And we learned from each other. Despite social media increasing our social interactions, social media rarely increases meaningful social interactions.
This is why the thing that often helps me move forward and gives me hope is interacting with people like you - students that are trying to find their way through the world. It’s these interactions that helped me start a new chapter in my life 3 years ago. You see, I absolutely love what I do, but after 17 years, I wondered what my research was giving back to the world. I also realised that the biggest contribution I can give is not the discovery of new evolutionary understandings or theories, but to help students find their way in this new world.
It is this drive, combined with a decades-long love of video games blended with an evolutionary understanding of the importance of social interactions sprinkled with a cultural understanding of what video games can provide to society, that led me to start an education company that teaches science through video games. Looking back, I could never have imagined this ever happening.
It was 3 years ago that I started collaborating with SAE/Qantm and started taking in interns where we taught each other about the world and worked together to create experiences to excite students about science. Some of these interns stayed on and two and a half years later we are a team of six people – still struggling – but making progress. And it will likely be another two years of struggling to see if we are creating something the world sees value in.
The thing that drove me then – to understand the natural world – is not the same thing that drives me now – the desire to educate and excite the next generation by helping them find their path through life in this world that has become infinitely more complex in every possible way.
You see, I struggle just like you. But I feel that this struggle has made me a better person and I can say with full honesty that I am very satisfied and happy with my life and the decisions I’ve made, even though I didn’t see the road ahead of me. So I’d like to end by saying to you all that you have just graduated, and as cliché as it sounds – this is just the beginning. Some of you may use your skills and carry on. Others may feel that you’re happy to be done because this isn’t really what you thought it would be. And in either case, each of you have become better people through your experiences.
And this is where I want to tell you that each of you have learned something special that most people don’t understand: the craft of storytelling. Whether that’s through a movie, a film, an album, an animation, a game, a book, a design, or a font. Each of you is telling a story through your creation.
Most people cannot tell stories, and they need your help. This is your superpower and you opportunity to forge a path of your own. A path that you are happy with. Because if you get involved in doing the things that you love and that drive you, it won’t feel like work. And that’s the secret.
And the last piece of advice I will give you is to create small things quickly. Release those things. Ask for feedback, and don’t be afraid to listen to what people tell you. Again, it comes back to those meaningful social interactions. Listening to others is one of the hardest things we need to do, but such a rapid cycle of creation and feedback helps you grow and find your path more quickly.
So I leave you with this challenge: take your storytelling superpower and combine it with your experiences and the experiences of the people you work with and tell stories that are meaningful, real, and in this era where information is so easily manipulated, stories that are true.
I cannot wait to see and hear about the wonderful things that each of you will create. And in your travels, I hope that each of you will be able to look back in about 20 years and feel happy and proud of the decisions that each of you made to get you where you will be.
Congratulations again graduating class of 2018. You should be proud.