Oxford Brookes University Graduation Guest Speech: Two Unconventional Truths


I was the guest speaker at a graduation at Oxford Brookes University on 6 September 2023. I feel both honoured and humbled by this experience. I always looked at the guest speakers at graduations and thought they were super-humans – they looked calm and in control – as if they were busy cooking oats for a family member while, in actual fact, they are the centre of the attention of 300-odd people.

While I don’t know what I looked like up on the stage, I do know that humans are humans – we stress on the inside even though we pretend not to on the outside. When an opportunity comes to be pushed outside one’s comfort zone, we need to take it. And when we feel the stress building up, we need to embrace the feeling of vulnerability.

One of their traditions stood out to me. At the end of the graduation ceremony, the faculty members walked out of the graduation hall first (a typical tradition), but then, they formed a Guard of Honour just outside the venue and clapped hands for each and every graduate exiting the venue. This gesture symbolised respect and pride. Putting the focus on someone else's achievement, making it “about them”, warms one’s heart.

With regards to the actual content of the speech, here it is:

Graduands, family, friends, colleagues and guests… 


Graduands, take a deep breath and genuinely feel the excitement running through your body, butterflies in your stomach and tingling of your skin. This is the feeling of achievement but also of anticipation. 

You have now reached the highest floor this lift can take you to. You must step out and get into another lift, in a different wing of the building, one that will take you to your next level. 

You may choose the lift that takes you to a PhD. Or one that takes you to start a practice. Or one that takes you to manage a sports team. 

There are two rules to consider:

  • firstly: you nééd to choose a lift; stagnating is not an option; becoming a lifelong learner is essential; continue to grow and develop; 
  • and secondly, you need to contribute to the lives of fellow passengers, family, friends, colleagues and guests while you go up. 

A few weeks ago, I was reminded of the importance of following your own path, even if it is the one less travelled. I was running on the most beautiful footpath. At a stage, the footpath became very narrow and overgrown. It was clear that only a few take this route. 

I was curious to know whether there would be a dead-end on the other side. 

I was well prepared and responsible in my decision to proceed: my phone was charged, Google Maps connected, and I had an umbrella. I ended up on the most beautiful wheat farm and, eventually, safely reached civilisation on the other side. 

The road less travelled, the unconventional, does not necessarily lead to a dead-end, which reminded me of two unconventional approaches to life and work: 

Number 1. Focus on your strengths. 

We live in a society where we are taught that knowing our weaknesses affords us the greatest opportunities for development - a fix-it-to-feel-complete mindset. But… research has shown that people are more confident, self-aware and productive if they focus on further developing their strengths. 

The result is an up to 23% increase in employee engagement, an 18% increase in performance, and a 73% reduction in attrition rate. 

Thus, know your weaknesses to manage them, but focus on your strengths and develop them. 

Number 2. Take shortcuts.

Phrases such as "it's hard, but it's worth it" or "there's no shortcut to success" earned their rightful place, but T&Cs apply.  Because we also hear the recommendations of "work smart", "automate tasks", "be strategic," and "learn from the mistakes of others". What are these other than shortcuts? 

The official definition of a shortcut is "an alternative route that is shorter than the one usually taken". 

Shortcuts got a negative label due to being associated with laziness. Is it really lazy to find the most effective and efficient way to do things so that you can spend the remainder of your energy and time on other valuable activities? 

Use ethical, moral and legal shortcuts to produce a high-quality end product. 

Graduands, go out there, find your next lift and start travelling. Be responsible and well-prepared as you embark, where appropriate, on the unconventional journey. 

Family, friends, colleagues and guests... Keep supporting these graduands through their journeys; they may just end up in the same lift as you.

Photo by Gül Işık.


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