Commencement Address


Photo: L

As is a tale, so is life
Not how long it is
But how good it is,
Is what matters
– Seneca

In her commencement address at Havard University in 2008;  JK Rowling spoke to the graduating class about:
(i) Benefits of failure and
(ii) Importance of imagination

Having failed at marriage and her job, what’s failure?

“Failure was a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.

Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believed I truly belonged.

I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom was the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means you are ever after secure in your ability to survive.”

The speech was recently published (2015) in a think book, beautifully illustrated in red, white and black.

If you have a chance to travel back in time to meet you at 21, what advice would you give you?


The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without one. – Oscar Wilde

Globalisation, off-shoring, outsourcing, right-sizing, machines replacing me. Sorry, Mr Wilde, thinking about this doesn’t make me love my job, but more fearful.  Fear makes people do weird stuff.

What if my boss starts listing my job on eBay and get workers to bid salaries online, like a reverse auction and have jobs going to the lowest bidders.

20 ideas of the future

A excellent book that deserves a place on the shelf is “50 ideas you really need to know about the future” by Richard Watson. He is a scenario planner and has a blog on top future trends.

I’ve digested the 50 ideas into 20 career areas with potential. Jobs are disappearing and new ones being created.  Read his book to see the ones that don’t yet exist (e.g. robot relationship counsellor?).

For those of us who want work-life harmony, we will see more part-time, flexible working, and tele-commuting. More job specialisation – yes I see that coming from my clients in headhunting. Watson predicts that work that cannot be outsourced to highly intelligent machines or outsourced to highly intelligent people in lower-cost countries – I call them localised jobs that need the emotional, personal touch: nursing care, teachers, architects, writers, poets, painters, musicians, philosophers and plumbers, together with certain scientists, designers, engineers, lawyers (funny he should say that, the Law Ministry just said we’ve over-supply of lawyers), stress counsellors, masseurs, religious ministers, policy makers, strategists, innovators and entrepreneurs.

Many of these jobs are context-specific. Although we have a glut of lawyers, we are lacking in those practicing family law, criminal law for instance, according to the Ministry of Law. And young people, if you choose the area of study because of the trend reports, read the fine-print carefully.

Commencement addresses are another excellent way of seeking advice from the successful.

Mr Khenghuai recently sent me the following link of Vivek Wadhwa’ commencement address the Hult International Business School on 22 Aug 2014. URL Source:

The present stage of man’s history is unique, as entrepreneurs can do what only governments and big corporations could do before.

Computers, and the information technology that they enable, are going into other fields –  artificial intelligence, robotics, medicine, 3D printing, etc. This has allowed the creation of new industries and the replacement of the old. This can come in the form of 3D printing household goods, entire buildings, electronic circuits, and even food; delivering of goods by drones; developing new organisms to improve agriculture and clean up the environment.

With the good, there is also the bad that these technologies bring – large-scale destruction, spying, and many unimaginable horrors. Technologies which are available in Silicon Valley, and the same knowledge and ideas, are available everywhere – entrepreneurs, governments and criminals, are also developing them.

The jobs and careers that exist now may not exist a decade later.

The most important skills of the future?  

“Ability to learn and adapt”, “to collaborate with others and build relationships… share ideas, inspire and motivate.”

What Dr Wadhwa said, reminds me of an account of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement address at Havard, where she shared an advice then Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave her when she was considering joining Google. Get on a rocket ship. When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, that’s when stagnation and politics come in. If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.

Read more:

Do you want a seat on the rocket?

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ”
― Alvin Toffler

Clawing your way back from adversity

Failure is an F word.  In Singapore, Mr Kiasu – Mr “Afraid to Fail” is a Singapore icon.

Strangely, everytime I want to try something different, and I’m a pretty risk adverse person, my well meaning friends, who have themselves “marched to the tune of a different drumbeat” from their peers would caution why its not a good idea.

Tina Seelig, who teaches course of innovation and entrepreneurship at Stanford University describes failure as the “secret sauce of Silicon Valley”

Fear of failure

1. Take responsibility for your actions and be willing to learn from what happened

Seelig requires her students to write a failure resume. Instead of writing about their achievements, students are to summarize their biggest screw-ups – personal, professional and academic.  For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from the experience.

Seelig writes of the look of surprise on the students’ face when she told them of the assignment, but they quickly realised that viewing their experiences from the lenses of failure helped them realise and learn from the mistakes they’ve made along the way.

Someone once shared with me about a sigmoid curve, Being on a down cycle, its hard to see that the temporary dip is actually a setup for the next rise. In fact, the slope of the upward line is often steeper than a down cycle, meaning you’re really achieving more than if you had stayed on a steady predictable path. -Tina Seelig, “What I wish I knew when I was 20.”

How to build resilience in times of Adversity and Failure

Excerpt of Steve Jobs’ Speech:

We had just released our finest creation – the Macintosh – a year earlier, and I had just turned thirty.  And then I got fired. How can you get fired from a company you started?  Well, as Apple grew, we hired someone who I thought was very talented to run the company with me, and for the first year or so things went well.  But then our visions of the future begun to diverge and eventually we had a falling out.  When we did, our Board of Directors sided with him.  So at thirty, I was out. And very publicly out.  What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.

I really didnt know what to do for a few months. … I was a very public failure and I even thought about running away from the Valley.  But something slowly began to dawn on me – I still loved what I did.  The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit.  I had been rejected, but I was still in love.  And so I decided to start over.

2. Be willing to start over again and persevere

I didnt see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.  The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.  It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

During the next five years, I started a company named NeXT, another company named Pixar, and fell in love with an amazing woman who became my wife. Pixar went on to create the world’s first computer-animated feature film, Toy Story, and is now the most successful animation studio in the world.  In a remarkable turn of events, Apple bought NeXT, I returned to Apple, and the technology we developed at NeXT is at the heart of Apple’s current renaissance.

I’m pretty sure none of this would have happened if I hadn’t been fired from Apple. It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it.  Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.

3. Don’t quit too early

Conventional wisdom gives the impression that talent is blindingly obvious.  Many companies try to spot talent and potential at a very young age.  In the classic 3M “Post-it” notes story, with an adhesive that wouldnt stick but later turned into a million dollar business and an integral part of our daily lives.

Never, never, never give up.  – Winston Churchill

It was invented in 1986 and promoted internally at 3M but no one was interested.  8 years later in 1974, a colleague Art Fry realised that he could use the adhesive to stick notes on his hymnal and spent his free time developing the product into the 3M Post-it notes we see today, and it wasnt until six years later that 3M launched the product.

Even if it seems you’ve failed, know when to quit and when not to quit too early.

4.  Learn to tell the story from a different perspective

Despite the Enron, sub-prime crises, it has not been easy convincing my Financial Services class on the importance of ethics.  A friend advised me that instead of telling them about what is right or wrong, ask them to consider the newspaper test.  What if your mom were to read about what you did  in the daily newspaper.  In a similar approach, we can learn from this newspaper approach in dealing with failure.

How would you craft your failure story now, so you’ll be proud to tell it later?

During a job interview, when you have to describe how you dealt with [conflict, adversity, difficult people, ambiguous situation ___________]?

5.  Your brain is plastic: learn new adaptive habits and skills

Failure signals a pause to allow us to reflect whether the crisis was caused by destructive thoughts and actions and bad habits.

Neuroplasticity pioneer researcher Jeffrey Schwartz and psychologist Rebecca  Gladding in their book ” You are Not your Brain” studying the structure and neuronal firing patterns of the human brain discovered that the brain can fire deceptive, urges, desires, impulses independent of your mind.  Your brain and mind are separate.

Bad habits, social anxieties, self-deprecating thoughts, and compulsive overindulgence are all rooted in overactive brain circuits and deceptive, negative brain messages.  While you are not responsible for the brain’s detrimental action but you are responsible for your choice on actions.

a) Relabeling (noticing thoughts),

The sensations your brain feels, is not the real you.  Every time you encounter an uncomfortable situation, your “Habit centre” kicks in, giving you temporary relief “momentarily – indulging in cravings, addictions etc”.  However this will not let the negative thoughts go away.

b) Reframing (naming the brain’s deceptive thought pattern to change your relationship to the thought),

“Its not me, its just my brain”.

Knowing that the urge to get that “right feeling” is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the brain, you can learn to ignore the urge and move on. By refusing to listen to the urge or to act on it, you will actually change your brain and make the feeling lessen. If you take the urge at face value and act on it, you may get momentary relief but within a very short time the urge will just get more intense.

c) Refocusing (placing awareness elsewhere), and

Shift gears. Choose some specific behavior to replace compulsive washing or checking. Any constructive, pleasant behavior will do. Hobbies are particularly good. For example, you may decide to take a walk, exercise, listen to music, read, play a computer game, knit, or shoot a basketball.

After a class, I have caught myself, evaluating my class and an overactive inner critic, telling me what a horrible class it had been, and a few students who were terribly bored (ignoring the majority of the class who had rated the class very beneficial.

  • What I had found helpful was to go to the gym for 20 mins or bake a cake.  The focus and mindfulness required in the new activity provides relief from the over-active unhelpful brain messages.
  • Read my gratitude journal, where I had earlier recorded all the little things I am grateful for. [At this stage, your brain is likely to filter out the happy successful events, and focus only on the negative. ]

d) Revaluing (aligning with one’s deeper values, or true self).

Clearly see those thoughts as something to be dismissed, and not to take it at face value. You are not your thoughts.  Remind yourself what is the new reality and the goals you want to attain.  See yourself as how your loving and nurturing inner guide, the Wise Advocate sees you, and the values and goals of the true Self.

Check out: Summary of 4 steps

The things I’ve done the best, were the things I was less certain about. – Neil Gaiman

Best career advice I was given, came from Stephen King. “You should enjoy it”. When he saw the long lines queuing (for Neil’s autograph after the success of “Sandman”.)

A long time ago, I entertained the thought of writing children’s books. L introduced me to Neil Gaiman’s “The Day I swapped my dad for two goldfishes”.    It was hilarious. I went on to read “Coraline”.

Im so pleased to chance upon his commencement speech at the University of Philadelphia.  A summary of the speech can be found on Gus Lubin’s write-up at the Business Insider (re-printed here):

First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.

Secondly, If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.

Thirdly, When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thickskinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.

Fourthly, I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name…”

And Fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.

Sixthly. I will pass on some secret freelancer knowledge. Secret knowledge is always good. And it is useful for anyone who ever plans to create art for other people, to enter a freelance world of any kind. I learned it in comics, but it applies to other fields too.”

Read more:

Other Commencement speeches: