Guest speech at the 2014 Heathfield High School Presentation Night

Blog post, 12 November 2014

This is a transcript of a speech made on 28 October 2014 to Heathfield High School, my alma mater. Heathfield is located in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia.

A video of this speech is available here.

Thank you Amanda, and good evening to everyone.

I’ll be honest: when Amanda asked me to make a speech tonight, I was absolutely terrified. I’ve never really had to write a fancy speech before, and both my sister and my dad have made speeches for Presentation Night in the past, which—of course—meant that mine would have to be better.

For a while I honestly considered turning down the invite, but being asked to speak at your old High School’s Presentation Night isn’t the sort of opportunity you pass up, especially when the school has had as much impact on your life as Heathfield has had on mine.

I can still safely say that the best teachers I’ve had in my life were those I had at Heathfield. In year 12 in particular—I put an enormous amount of effort into my studies, and my teachers put an enormous amount of time into helping me with them.

I spent that year studying like crazy, and midway through the year I was completely burned out. My motivation to study fell off a cliff.

So I mentioned this to Tanya Fischer, my home group teacher. Back then I didn’t even know what I wanted to do after I graduated, so I asked her: “why am I putting myself through this?”

Tanya told me: “if you had the ability to do well, and you didn’t, you’d regret it.”

She was right, and it worked. As my dad later said: you only get one go at it, you might as well give it your best shot.

So I feel very lucky to have been a Heathfield student. I attended a great school, which creates fantastic opportunities for its students, and with teachers who genuinely cared how their students went.

But I should hedge a tiny bit here—for the students: your grades in year 12 are important, but they shouldn’t take over your life. And study certainly wasn’t the only thing I did at Heathfield.

I also learned a lot through the Heathfield Volleyball Program.

The Heathfield Volleyball Program is something that is really hard to explain to people who haven’t been involved in it. It was something I almost took for granted while I was at school, and I only later came to realise how many positive things I’d taken from it, and how much I missed being a part of it.

When you’re part of the Heathfield Team you very quickly learn what hard work is. Some of the best memories of my life are from playing for this school at the Australian Schools Cup. Playing in a grand final in front of hundreds of chanting and cheering Heathfield players is an experience you don’t forget very quickly.

I still play volleyball, and I’m now the President of the Adelaide University Volleyball Club. Most of my closest friends are those I made during my time at Heathfield, or through playing volleyball for Adelaide Uni since.

So if I was to give one quick piece of advice to the students here, it’d be this: get involved in something.

It doesn’t even matter what that thing is—whether it’s a sport club, the pedal prix, music—being part of a community will give you a lot more benefit than the effort you put into it.

Volunteer your time for a community group, and I guarantee you’ll be richer for it.

Not all of you will want to do more study after you graduate from High School, but one of the first things you’ll realise if you do is that there is a very big difference between a lecturer and a teacher.

I learned this the hard way. After Doug Gregory had spent Year 12 getting me to love Physics, I enrolled in Aerospace Engineering with Science as my double degree, intending to major in Physics.

Unfortunately, I then spent my first semester with an American lecturer who taught everything in Imperial units, and assumed knowledge that hadn’t been part of the Year 12 Physics curriculum for at least 30 years. By the end of the semester there were only three of us attending lectures.

It did work out all right in the end though: through my Engineering degree I discovered I really enjoyed programming, I changed my Science degree to Computer Science, and now I work as a Software Engineer.

One of the great things I experienced when I started working full-time was that for the first time in my life I was now interacting with people significantly older than me on a regular basis, and not as parents, or teachers, or coaches, but as peers.

I spend my work week with colleagues who are double my age. They have very different backgrounds, different interests, and different world views.

And, as with every generation throughout history, they think the next generation is going to ruin society.

Some of the best moments I’ve had at work have been just talking to my workmates. I’ve learned how to service my car, the optimum time to eat protein after a workout, the type of milk I should buy to maximise the froth in my coffee, and the best places to eat in every major city in Australia.

I’ve learned a lot simply because my background isn’t the same as theirs, and they’ve been alive a lot longer than I have.

While talking to my workmates I’ve also had arguments—on politics, society, science and technology. If you know how opinionated my family can be, this won’t be much of a surprise.

One of the benefits of having an education, however, is that I’ve learned how to argue my point of view, and how to understand someone else’s perspective, even if I strongly disagree with them. This is a very important skill to have, especially in modern society.

Modern technology, after all, is amazing—most of us now walk around with a device in our pockets which can access the sum of all human knowledge in seconds via the Internet.

The Internet also, unfortunately, comes with more than a few negatives. For starters, it makes it easier than ever to be horrible to other people. Some of you in this room may have personal experience with that.

The Internet also makes it really easy to avoid ever having your viewpoints challenged.

How is that possible? Well, the problem is that when given the choice, we tend to avoid or dismiss anything which challenges our views. It’s a thing called Cognitive Dissonance.

One of my all-time favourite quotes is from John Kenneth Galbraith:

“Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

And he’s right. Being shown that we’re wrong about something makes us uncomfortable. So, we avoid it, if we can.

This is difficult to do when you study or work on a daily basis with people who hold different views to you, but the internet makes it easier than ever.

Politics in the United States and Australia have never been so polarised—and part of that is due to the fact that people are choosing to source their news from places that present it in a way that already agrees with them.

It also works for conspiracy theories. If I Google for five minutes, I can find a thousand people who will agree with me on almost anything, no matter how crazy. The moon landing was a hoax? The earth is flat? Tony Abbott is an alien lizard? (You may laugh, but that last one gets over one hundred thousand results.)

It gets worse: if one of my friends decides to take the time to show me evidence that I am wrong, another five minutes on Google will get me hundreds of pages proving that the evidence is part of a conspiracy to suppress the truth.

This is human nature. It’s much more comfortable to hear things that agree with us.

Facebook recently released a study about manipulating peoples news feeds. It turns out that they can put you in a better mood if they filter your news feed to only show you happy stories. And they have an interest in doing exactly that, because people tend to click on advertising and buy things more often if they’re in a good mood.

This is a bit of a worry when so many of us now get our news from our Facebook feeds or other social networks.

So the internet is great—it’s a fantastic invention. But it also has its downsides.

And the Internet cannot replace an education.

Why? Because an education isn’t just about learning, it’s about being shown how to learn. What to look for. How to weigh evidence. How to compare arguments. How to tell the difference between a blog post and a peer-reviewed study covering decades of research.

It’s also about being challenged. Not just in the sense of making you do hard things, but challenging your views. Learning how to go looking for different perspectives, even if they make you uncomfortable. Learning to appreciate and understand different points of view, even if you strongly disagree with them.

Some closing thoughts:

To the parents—try to remember that just because your daughter or son is sitting in front of a screen doesn’t mean they’re wasting their time. They might just be talking to someone on the other side of the world on an issue they care strongly about.

To the students—try not to underestimate how much you can learn from your parent’s generation. They might call it BookFace and ChatSnap, talk about sending ‘Twitters’ to their friends, and they might call everything flat with a screen an ‘iPad’, but they have been alive a lot longer than you have, and they know plenty of things that you don’t.

In my life I’ve found that you can learn from books and from computers, but the stuff that really counts can best be learnt from people.

I was taught by a lot of great people at Heathfield, and you have as well. You’ll only realise just how important that is after you leave.

Thank you, and the best of luck for the rest of the year.