11 November 2009
Kia ora koutou. Thank you very much for this honour – the Tauranga Girls' College Alumni Association Award. I’m very grateful for this award and for this recognition.
And especially so that I can come home to Tauranga and share this with my parents, Jim and Sandra Byrnes, my Nana Kath, and my sister, Vanessa Byrnes (also a Tauranga Girls' College old girl).
I first joined Tauranga Girls' College in 1982, half-way through what was then called 4th Form (now it is Year 10) and completed 7th Form (now Year 13) in 1984.
I have fond memories of my years here at Tauranga Girls' College. I had some terrific teachers; particularly my 7th Form History teacher, Murray Armstrong, who showed us what real historical scholarship looked like. My English teacher, Terry Collett, inspired me to take an English literature degree at University.
We had some wonderful women teachers too: Mrs Masters and Miss Lindsay come to mind. I remember too, Miss Golightly, principal after Joy Drayton, who was a great role model for the girls.
This was the 1980s after all, and the height of the ‘Girls Can Do Anything’ campaign. It was truly empowering being at an all-girls’ school.
Being at a single-sex school, the impression made on me was a strong one – that I could do anything. And I put this down to the messages we received at school and the support I had at home: that our ambition was unlimited and that we could do whatever we wanted in life.
In June 2007, I was appointed Professor and Chairperson of the Department of History at the University of Waikato and since mid-2008 have also held the university-wide leadership role of Pro Vice-Chancellor (Postgraduate Research and Supervision), with responsibility for all doctoral candidates across the University.
I’m fortunate enough to be in a role where I can inspire others to achieve their goals and realize their own potential. And I owe much of that to attending an all-girls school.
But if, from my vantage point now, I could tell my 17-year-old self what I now believe are the most important things in life, it would be some life lessons – which I will share with you tonight.
The first lesson is: Don’t ever downplay your achievements. Remember, that you will be judged by your successes – not your failures. And be kind to yourself—that’s something I wish I’d known a bit sooner.
These comments might sound like clichés. But clichés become clichés because they usually contain some essential kernel of truth. That’s something I have learnt by experience.
Lesson number two: be passionate. Do what you love, even if you don’t love it every single day. I knew I had to be an historian because I’m curious about the world, I love to write and read and to make sense of what happened to people like me in the past—and I also saw that when properly practiced, history is a craft that can help make a difference in the contemporary world. It can be applied to solve modern problems and challenges. I learnt this lesson when I was working for the Waitangi Tribunal, working with claimants for whom history really mattered in the here and now.
So, take my word for it: you’ll be good at what fires you.
According to recent research, the most important predictor of success in life is self-awareness. That means knowing — and accepting — your own strengths and weaknesses. In other words: look at yourself honestly ... understand your passions, your skills, your temperament and your limitations. Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward and blow your own trumpet when you need to: be aware of your strengths and sensitive to (but not too focused on) your weaknesses.
But to land that ideal career and to realize your own person long-term goals, whatever they might be, you’ll need something else. Which brings me to lesson three: Persistence.
When I was trying to get my first book published I was in for a rude shock – the publisher who said they would publish the manuscript backed out of the deal at the last minute and although feeling crushed, I had to pick myself up and go to another publisher (the competitor of the first publisher) and my persistence paid off!
I know of countless other examples of persistence working well in getting the job you want and getting your goals accomplished.
Persistence is critical. But being creative and persistent is even better.
The fourth lesson that has served me well, that I know you will have to call upon at some point in your lives, is resilience. You will inevitably face disappointment, loss, and struggles that are, at this moment, inconceivable and impossible to predict.
You need to be resilient – that’s where family and whanau are critical.
This brings me to my fifth point: Be fearless. Have the courage to take risks. Go where there are no guarantees. Get out of your comfort zone, even if it means being uncomfortable.
The road less traveled is sometimes fraught with barricades, bumps and uncharted terrain. But it is on that road where your character is truly tested — and your personal growth realized.
I’ve uprooted my family not once but twice to date. Most recently, we have moved back from Wellington to Hamilton – and this has been a positive move. But it meant taking a risk and making a decision to leap into the unknown.
At times, it hasn’t been easy. But I have never felt stronger. And I know that I would have regretted not taking these chances. I hope that, when you feel it in your heart, you will also take a leap of faith and go for it.
My sixth point is about courage. Courage will be required of you on many fronts. Have the courage to seek the truth, and speak the truth, to stand up for the under-dog, and to stand up against intolerance — even if yours is the lone voice doing so. Have the courage to trust your own moral compass — your innate understanding of right and wrong. And have the courage to accept that you’re not perfect, nothing is, and no one is — and that’s OK.
Now the two most highly anticipated words in any graduation address: ‘In conclusion ... ‘
My final message to you is: Find the joy. Life goes by in an instant. One of the things I am learning is to slow down enough to appreciate and revel in the simple things in life. As John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans ...”
And be kind. Be kind to your friends, be kind to your family … and be kind to yourselves. And remember, look for the best in others and appreciate that everyone really is just doing the best they can.
Let me leave you with some words of wisdom from the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said success is:
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a little better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
And remember that you have to like yourself. After all, the person who you’re with most in life is yourself and if you don’t like yourself you’re always with somebody you don’t like.
Soon, many of you will be setting off on your next adventure – whether that is final-year exams, a new year at school or leaving to go to university or elsewhere. You are beginning something new, and what makes beginnings so thrilling is the unknown. The world is waiting for you.
I wish you all very good lives.
Thank you very much for this award.
Tena katou katoa.
11 November 2009