Commencement speech to the graduating class of the University of Essex at Southend
On the occasion of having been made an honorary Doctor of the University
Delivered 31 October 2017
Cliffs Pavilion, Southend-on-Sea
I’m going to keep this short, because I just got back from Amsterdam, and I’m sure some of you know how that goes.
(This actually got a big laugh, which led me to make a comment along the lines of “Oh, I see what kind of crowd we have here.”)
I’ve been asked to say something inspirational and uplifting to you on the happy occasion of your graduation. Which, given that you’ve worked very hard for your qualification and I just wandered in here and got one for free, seems faintly obscene. So I could lead out with a cautionary tale about how life is fundamentally unfair and old white guys steal everything. But, you know, I left education at 18, and by the time I was your age I was living in a six foot by six foot rented room that used to be a dark room and would sometimes go out at night to punch pay-phones to get them to spit out loose coins that I could use for food money. And here I am. Life is unpredictable.
Sometimes you start out at the bottom. Sometimes you’ll trip and fall down. Sometimes you stay there for a good long time. Sometimes all the lousy luck in the world only ever seems to wash up at your door. I’m telling you from experience that sometimes you’re going to feel like giving up on your chosen path. Maybe you’re even worried that you don’t actually have a chosen path yet. There’s going to be a day when you say to yourself, the hell with it, I’m going to leave a note blaming my teachers for everything and I’m going to go and sell all my organs to medical science while I’m still alive.
I’d been working as a professional writer for seven years or so when I went on my first American tour. On the first stop, at the signing table, this big guy comes up to me, with wet eyes, and told me about the story I’d written that saved his life one night when he’d been down so long that he didn’t see a better day ahead. Whatever was in that story, it gave him something to think about, a goal to stay alive for. I don’t tell you this story to explain what a wonderful person I am, though of course that’s true and now I have a doctorate to prove it, which I’m going to use to drive my family absolutely insane for the rest of my life. I tell it because life is unpredictable and you never know what’s going to happen to let in the light. And I say that as someone who used to literally live in a dark room.
The focus and dedication and determination that got you into this room is what’s going to keep you going. You know how to aim at a goal and reach it. You know what you want. Keep it in sight. Hold on tight. Maybe you don’t know what the specific goal is yet. That’s fine. You’ve got time. Even if you don’t know the shape and name of it, you know in your gut where you want to be. Aim for what makes you happy. For what feels valuable to you. Put yourself where it’s going to count.
That’s where I need you to be. You’ve lead lives that had structure and clearly defined ends, and now you’re entering a world where people watch Jeremy Kyle on purpose. Nobody predicted how weird it’s gotten out here. And I’m a science fiction writer telling you that. And the other science fiction writers feel the same. I know some people who specialized in near-future science fiction who’ve just thrown their hands up and gone off to write stories about dragons because nobody can keep up with how quickly everything’s going insane. It’s always going to feel like being thrown in the deep end, but it’s not always this deep, and I’m sorry for that. But we need you to be out here with us now.
I hope you have the fire in you that my generation had at your age, that most generations have at your age – the fire to fix things, and the fire to make new things, fly new ideas, create the new sound that nobody heard before. You’ll notice that my generation didn’t fix everything, and also released Piers Morgan on the world. We’re sorry for that, too. We made mistakes. You’ll make mistakes too. Don’t be afraid of that. Making mistakes happens when you’re trying something new. It’s how you know you’re bending the envelope. Making mistakes is how you learn, and sometimes a mistake gives you something valuable. Brian Eno made a set of cards with weird notes on them that he used when he was working with David Bowie, among others, and one of the cards reads, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.” You’ll find that’s a lot more useful than Keep Calm And Carry On.
Don’t worry about making mistakes. You’ll learn something, and that will be added to the commonwealth of our knowledge, and we all take one step forward.
Today isn’t the end of anything, really. It’s the beginning. You’re just getting started. You’re going to do great things. You’re going to surprise yourself with what you’re capable of and what you achieve. I’ve seen it happen, over and over again. All you have to do is not quit. Take a day off, but don’t quit. Keep fighting, keep thinking, keep making, keep trying something new. Hold on tight to what matters to you, stand up for what’s right, and keep your eyes on the horizon. It all starts today. It all starts with one step forward.
Congratulations to you all on your achievement. It’s time to begin the bigger and more exciting and more important part of your life. The part where you make a difference. I look forward to seeing you all again, in the future that you help create. Time to get started.