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Graduation address: “Every success is everybody’s success”

I was honoured to be asked to give the graduation address at this year’s St Andrews Day ceremony. The speech is below.

Chancellor, Principal, colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen:

Graduations are a celebration of hard work and success. And the efforts you’ve all made to be sitting here today certainly deserve to be celebrated: whatever your course of study, you’ve shown the determination, dedication, intelligence, creativity, and drive to succeed.

But being asked to give this graduation address got me thinking about the nature of success, and I’d like to share a thought with you: that success is not something we can readily ascribe to anyone individually. Rather, it’s a jigsaw that assembles itself from the actions of those people you meet and by whom you are influenced. Indeed, when you get right down to it, every success is everybody’s success.

To see what I mean by this, think about how much had to go right for your studies to take place. You had to be born and brought up in a way that made you emotionally able to leave home and thrive on your own, possibly mastering a different language and culture, to become a rounded individual with the skills needed to take on a university such as this. This is no mean feat on the parts of yourselves and your parents, as I hope you appreciate; not to mention your earlier teachers, friends, neighbours, and all the other people who influenced you down the years. When you came to St Andrews, I’m sure you discovered that learning and research don’t occur in a vacuum. Most of you will have worked as part of a team, either in a lab or a seminar, where you came together to do something that perhaps none of you could have done individually. If you think back, I’m sure you can remember plenty of things said or done that have contributed directly to your being here today.

We can cast the net wider. The university is clean, secure, and well-managed, thanks to the efforts of porters, cleaners, secretaries, administrators, and a host of others — efforts that tend to be hidden away and are easily forgotten, but that contribute to your studies at least as much as the efforts of your lecturers. The lights are on, the labs and seminar rooms are warm (more or less). There are coal miners in eastern Poland whom we will never meet, and who will never know to what they contributed — but without them the wheels would not have turned, the lights would not have burned, and none of the functions that we perform in this university would have been possible. So every success that happens here is their success too.

And of course we should look through time as well as space. With this graduation we’re coming to the end of celebrating the 600th anniversary of the University of St Andrews. Think what has happened over those six hundred years to get us here! All the discovery and learning, all the patient, careful scholarship down through the years, slowly building knowledge, slowly building the reputation of this University, and of Scotland, as a place to come to learn and to teach and to do research — sparkling at this graduation today before ricocheting off into the future. Any successes any of us have here owe a debt to those who have come before us, who made this (frankly very unlikely) place possible.

If there’s any substance to these musings, then it’s this: success isn’t the singular, individual thing that we sometimes like to think it is; but nor is it an atomised, isolated thing occurring outside a particular place in space and time and the flow of humanity. The modern world tends to focus on measurement, and the corollary that anything that can’t be easily measured either didn’t happen at all or at least can be safely ignored. But a moment’s reflection will convince you that this is nonsense: the successes we’re celebrating today have been guided and driven by influences that we would struggle to identify and certainly couldn’t quantify in any meaningful way, but without which we would not all be sitting here.

This has some quite profound implications. It means that whatever you all do from today, whatever successes you enjoy in the years to come, are of real importance, no matter how small they may appear to you. Your research project may not give rise to the next Google: but it might be read by someone, who writes a thesis, that’s read by someone else, that gives another person an idea, that someone else uses to change the world for the better. We’ll never know the exact details of this process — we’ll certainly never measure it or report it — but lack of public credit doesn’t equate to lack of value, and that’s something that can help keep us all motivated and generous with our time and our ideas.

So as well as celebrating your own individual successes today, I hope you’ll also celebrate the contributions you’ve made to the successes of others through friendship, collaboration, advice, mutual support, tutoring — or just simply being here. Every success really is everybody’s success. Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the day.

(And in keeping with this spirit, I’d like to thank Al Dearle, Steve Linton, Linda Rafferty, and Lisa Dow, for their comments that made this speech so much better than when I first wrote it. The official press release version is on the university web site.)

 


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