I had the absolute pleasure of giving the keynote speech at the NSW Young Womens Leadership Seminar at NSW Parliament in October 2014, to this room full of incredible young women. They're all leaders in their schools and communities (and I could tell, because I have never seen so many badges on blazers!) and they were one of the most inspiring and exciting audiences I've ever spoken to.
It was so wonderful to meet them all, and I can't wait to see what they all do. Some of them asked for my speech (which is about my career/journey/advice to them), so here it is... presented without all the shout-outs and detours and LOLs we had in the room.
An enormous thank you to Rita Bila for inviting me to take part. You've made my year.
Speech delivered, NSW Parliament House, 17 October 2014
I'm so very honoured to be here, talking to you today.
I always wanted to end up in this building - I've worked here before, and I'd like to come back - I'm just taking the scenic route.
Let me tell you about that journey so far, and why I think the scenic route matters, especially for ambitious and motivated leadership types like yourselves.
To go way, way back, I grew up all over the place, mostly in South Western Sydney, but also beyond, in Lithgow and also in South America. Both of my parents came to Australia from very different parts of the world, specifcally, India and Chile, in the mid 1970s, so I always felt like we were all figuring this place out together. We moved around a lot and we were always the weird looking people with the strange food and weird music. Don't underestimate how valuable and excellent it is to be different, to be the outsider or the underdog. I spent my whole childhood being embarrassed by the very same things I am proudest of now - the cooking and dancing and partying and having big families with 5000 cousins and arguing about politics at the dinner table and being very very LOUD - all this stuff has been very good for me, in the long run. I wanted to fit in, but I'm really glad I didn't.
I was a big nerd, and I continue to be a massive nerd - these glasses are not for show, ladies - and so was lucky enough to go to a selective public school, where it was ok to care about school work and pretty much everyone tried really really hard. I feel really lucky about that. I feel really lucky that my school was an agricultural school, with a third of the kids being boarders from the country, and most kids travelling a long way to come to school every day. It meant that there was no one "standard" or "right" way of being: moving around a lot, and going to a school with a rowdy mix of outdoorsy country kids and sheltered suburban nerds, meant that I got to see early on that there are many different experiences, and different perspectives, and not one of them is necessarily better than another: they all matter, they all have value.
I always wanted to be in politics, or to be a writer, so when the time came to choose "what I would do for the rest of my life" (ha! Don't get too stressed out about that) I decided to try to become a political journalist, and I studied Journalism and Law. I loved it, but to be completely honest with you, I didn't finish it. I've never graduated university - something I actually really regret, and which I am not proud of at all - but basically, I got so busy working that very late in fourth year I just forgot to enrol for fifth year, and kept on putting it off.
That's because my detours started pretty early at Uni. I loved being at Uni, but to be honest I didn't spend a whole lot of time in class. I spent a frightening amount of time in the cafe of the design faculty, plotting parties, or at political rallies, or in the office of the student paper, which I worked on in second year. Through that, I had the opportunity to work on a small start-up magazine in third year, when eventually became a magazine called Yen, and that was it - I started editing magazines before I'd finished learning about them. I tell you this because I think that academic education, a theoretical framework, does really matter - but learning by doing is equally important. Put what you love, and what you intend to do, into practice as early and often as possible. Leap on opportunities to turn your assignments into other projects: it's so much easier to do that now, than it was even 10 or 15 years ago. If you're interested in media, make it. If you care about NGOs or social enterprise, go and offer to help. You'll never really feel fully "qualified", but you'll feel less intimidated by what you don't know, if you start doing what you can, as soon as you can.
So you might think, as a person motivated by a passion for politics, studying law, that I would have been writing about the big issues. Not so much.
While I was in high school, out in Glenfield, I discovered this exotic place called Newtown in the inner west. I'd never seen anything like it. It's a bit more tame today, but back in the 90s, there were all kinds of people with all kinds of piercings and outfits and it seemed incredibly bohemian. I came across this one shop that sold the work of small-scale Australian fashion designers. I loved the idea that people could dream up a style that resonated with them, that spoke to their passions, their context, the music they loved and the way they lived, and could make clothes and sell them to other people like them, offering something unique and distinctive and expressive. It was my first real contact with independent design, and I was hooked.
When my uni career (and early journalism career) began, I started meeting designers, creators, artists, musicians, learning about how and why they create. I started thinking about what Australia would look like, if we supported these unique creators: how different our economy, our workplaces, our cities would look, if our biggest exports were ideas - the product of imagination - instead of minerals and fossil fuels we’re digging out of the ground.
As my career progressed, I found that this sector in which ideas, imagination and innovation are the key product, is called the creative industries. It took me a long time to make the connection, to understand how working in the arts and culture, and in the creative sector, actually WAS helping me achieve the political and social goals that had motivated me from the outset, and that I was actually playing a part in addressing the big issues.
Our country is the lucky country not just because we have sunshine and beaches and lots of coal, but because we have a young, educated, creative, imaginative, connected population. Why aren’t we doing more with that?
It took a good ten years from the time I first discovered that cool shop in Newtown, eight years from when I started writing about local design in my uni student paper, seven years from when I worked on my first magazine, to draw the link between the business of culture, the world of making and dreaming and inventing, and the world of politics and social impact.
Some have described the arts and humanities as a mirror to the world: an instrument to reflect our aspirations and values.
Playwright Berthold Brecht had a different take: he described the arts as a hammer, a tool with which to shape the world, instead.
Everything is political. For me, politics is a social instrument which either elevates or segregates: it is what gives people access and opportunity. It is the difference between exclusion and inclusion, between opportunity and exclusivity.
The systems and structures of the world as it is, the status quo, can either amplify or restrict your voice, your expression. Developing the skills to express yourself, whether through your work, your art, your communication, can be a political act. Who gets a platform - the voices that have access to microphones, to stages, to gallery walls or shop floors - isn’t always fair. Disadvantage isn’t always solely economic - it can be the lack of opportunities to develop yourself and your skills, and to have your point of view considered.
I want to live in a world where talent and dedication and drive are what decide your career, your life, your participation in our social and cultural life. I want to live in a world made more interesting by the sounds of different voices, a world where our discourse is as complex and multi-layered as the many perspectives that diverse experience brings.
Unfortunately, we don't yet live in that world. I think, whatever you choose to do, you can make it political - by which I mean, you can have an impact. You can choose to be a positive force for change, for a shift to as world that more accurately resembles the world we want to live in.
It's weird that including women or people from different cultural or economic experiences is labelled as "diversity", because you know what we should call that? Reality.
It's weird, but it still matters, even for people of your generation. Even from our excellent comfortable awesome positions here in this room, as people who get to be considered leaders, it matters because our public life, our economic life, our cultural life, as a city or country or planet, does not yet reflect that reality, and we are all the poorer for it.
We need feminism, and multiculturalism, and many more isms besides, because it's going to take time for our institutions and power structures more accurately reflect reality.
We need many perspectives, not just in the broader life of this country, but in our own lives too. I always find that it's when I am stuck in my little bubble of "planet me" and with my blinkers on, keeping me focused on my life and what matters to me, that I am actually unhappiest. It's not good for your mental health or your work when you don't get to experience the biggest broadest messiest multiverse.
Deeper understanding arises from seeking out a range of perspectives, from engaging with the diversity and complexity of the world, from making connections across subject fields, across distance and spans of time. In my experience, I have found that innovation happens at the intersections, between disciplines, between cultures, when we try to see the world through another’s eyes, and contribute divergent thinking to solve one another’s problems.
So, even though now I spend my days curating exciting events, meeting artists, talking about ideas, thinking about how we can change what and how we consume and create, I absolutely see what I do as being the same communication and storytelling I had hoped to do as a journalist. And I also see what I do as being inherently politically and socially driven.
My advice to you, then, in a nutshell, is this:
Whatever you do, HAVE A PURPOSE. Aim to be a positive force. Be part of the solution. It doesn’t matter specifically WHAT you do, but rather, WHY you do it. In my life, this has meant measuring the choices I take, and the projects I choose to do, against a set of values and intentions. I work on public art projects and public events because I believe in opening up public space as a place for conversation and community: I want people to connect with each other in the public realm, and to feel empowered and engaged and able to transform their spaces and cities. I worked in policy, and advised the Minister for the Arts here in this building, because I believe that having influence over the structures of governance and law has a direct impact on people's personal experience and daily lives.
I suggest you TAKE THE DETOUR, the scenic route. The meandering path is the one that makes your career unique. That's the mix of secret herbs and spices that makes you you. SCRIPT YOUR OWN NARRATIVE, define your own skillset, and, if you’re as lucky as I have been, try to be guided by your passions rather than practicalities. Your twenties are there to be squandered: spend them up pursuing the things you love, getting paid poorly, and taking big dumb risks. Save being sensible for your thirties, seriously.
The world is going to change dramatically before you’re my age. Think about this: by the time you’re my age, it’ll be the year 2031. It is most likely that you will be exploring fields and telling stories that seem unfathomable today, that your careers will have endured through disruptions and industry shifts, that your paths will have taken unexpected turns.
Speaking for myself - I had absolutely no idea that the very many jobs I do today even existed when I was 17 years old. They probably didn’t exist. Certainly, even ten years ago, the ideas I explore every day, in my work at Vivid Ideas and TEDxSydney, investigating creativity and innovation, those fields were experimental, predictions and gambles.
It’s hard to imagine what you could study tomorrow that will still be perfectly relevant in 2031. That’s why you should CULTIVATE YOUR CURIOSITY, YOUR QUESTIONING, CRITICAL EYE, YOUR CAPACITY FOR CHANGE. Learn how to ask questions, rather than necessarily what today’s answers are. In this Information Age, the arts of communication, the contextualising and analytical skills of the humanities, are more important than ever. I’d suggest that you cultivate approaches and practices that enhance your flexibility, resilience, adaptability: the capacity to apply what you have learned in new contexts, to use your talents in new ways. Stay aware that the answer that “that’s the way it’s always been/that’s the way things are” is always a lazy one, and usually an untruth, and certainly not an answer that’s ever worth taking.
Now, like I said earlier, unfortunately we don’t yet live in that perfect world we deserve. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have pay equity as women; we find ourselves scrutinized or judged in different ways to our male peers, we are bombarded with messaging which turns us into puppets or playthings or which undermines our legitimate voice. I hope that’s all ugly ancient history by the time you’re my age, but if it’s not, here are a few things I’d suggest.
SPEAK WITH INTENTION. Lose the hesitations and verbal cues that suggest uncertainty. If you’re thought about what you’re about to say, own it. BORROW CONFIDENCE IF YOU HAVE TO. If people interrupt you (and boy, they will) FINISH YOUR SENTENCES. Step up when the opportunities arise. Say you can and learn along the way. You will always have to claim opportunities, or create them: I’ve always built my own jobs, or had people come to me to offer them to me, because I was out there, telling people I could do it - even before I really could.
Be eager, be ambitious, do too much - totally recommend that - but if I had any advice I could give me at 17 (or which I wish me at 34 would actually take too) it would be to go easy on yourself.
We're all under so much pressure, or we put ourselves under pressure, to know the way ahead, to have a grand strategy or a five or ten year plan. I think, if you're lucky, it takes ten years to figure out the direction you want to point your path in. There's so much that can't be known or predicted from where you sit, in the here and now. Don't expect to have it all figured out.
Don’t expect to nail down the specifics for a while, but go crazy asking questions. Ask yourself what makes you mad. Ask yourself what isn’t good enough. Ask yourself whose story you want to hear. Ask yourself what makes you light up. Ask yourself where you’d like to detour, who you’d like to learn from, what zig zags might take you into shady patches you could linger in, or which steep and rocky climbs you want to challenge yourself with.
I truly believe that it’s all those seeming wrong turns that actually bring you to the right path, if there is such a thing, or which can cast a light on what your story is to tell, and help you decide what kind of positive force you want to be, with the skills and time and passion and talent and energy that you have.