The Shape of Change
“Graduates, I am so proud to see each and every one of you. I know an incredible amount of work and sacrifice has gone into your achievements, so congratulations.
“Secondly, for friends and family in the audience, thank you, for all the support you have given to our graduates today. They could not have done it without you.
“Graduation is a moment when we celebrate achievements. But it is also a moment when we look to the future.
“Today, the future can seem overwhelming, but throughout most of human history the future wasn’t a problem. The life you were born into was the life you would live and die in. You would live a life similar to your parents. Little would change.
“Some people see life as one straight and relatively flat line from birth until death. They think today or yesterday is a pretty good guide to tomorrow.
“Today, this view of the future looks a little strange. Throughout large parts of human history, people’s quality of life did not meaningfully change until around the 19th century in Europe. People’s life spans lengthened and opportunities for social and physical mobility opened up. Life was no longer a straight flat line reaching from birth until death. People began to think things would improving during their life-times.
“When they looked into the future, they saw an upwards slope with life gradually improving. Young people set out assuming their life would be better than their parents’.
“Many of us have been bought up to think about life as a gradual upwards slope, but if you open any newspaper you get a very different view. Instead of gradual improvement, you will read story after story of decline.
“A survey of thousands of people in 17 advanced economies found that 61 per cent thought their children would be worse off than they are.
“There are certainly truths here. We currently face significant social and economic shocks – climate change and biodiversity loss are real challenges – however, not everything is so bad.
“A recent study by Philip Tetlock from the Wharton School found that there is a big gap between what the average US citizen thinks about social change and what the objective data is telling us. Tetlock and his team found that on average, people said that life had got worse during the previous decade.
"However, when they looked at objective data, they found most indicators of social and economic progress had significantly improved in the past decade. This study reminds us that sometimes things might not be as bad as we think they are.
“I’m sure we all know optimists who see life as an eternal upwards slope. We also know pessimists who think the world is continually going down the plug hole. But most of us also know that both are wrong: life is a mix of ups and downs.
“Take the example of happiness. For over a decade, I taught a course about business ethics. During the course, I would ask my students whether they thought they would become happier or sadder as they got older. Most of them were optimists and said they would become happier over time. Sadly, the reality is rather different.
“Dozens of studies have found that on average, people actually get a little less happy as they move from their childhood and adosdence into adulthood. They hit the bottom in their mid to late 40’s. One conclusion won’t come as a surprise to the parents in the audience: being an adult can sometimes suck.
“However, that is not the end of the story. People slowly get happier as they move into their 50’s, 60’s and beyond. This is a rather uncomfortable insight, but it reminds us that life can be u-shaped. Things start out well, then they can sometimes get worse, then they improve again.
“The question is not whether bad times will come – they will – but how you will face them, how you will make it through, and what you will learn from them.
“‘The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way’. The Roman philosopher and statesman, Marcus Aurelius wrote these words about 2000 years ago and they are still true today. The obstacles we face during hard times are often the way forward. It is by taking on the obstacles that we learn, grow and move on.
“If you talk with anyone who has lengthy experience, they will tell you that life isn’t just a single ‘u’ curve. It is more like a series of waves with many peaks and troughs. This can be seen in well-known economic phenomena of business cycles.
“According to researchers, most successful sectors during a boom are ones that are blamed when a bust happens. Equally, it is often firms which are founded at the bottom of a business cycle which go onto to be the biggest winners in a future boom.
“This reminds us not be too exuberant when times are good, nor negative in times are tough.
“Each of us will face waves of change during our lives, but there are rarer moments when well-known patterns of change break down. This happens when we experience a deeper ‘sea change’.
“In my favourite Shakespeare play, the Tempest, he described moments of profound change like this: ‘Nothing of him that doth fade, but doth suffer a sea change, into something rich and strange’.
The word ‘sea change’ originally comes from the lifecycle of salmon. These fish hatch from eggs in upland rivers and grow into small nibble fish which swim down the stream. But when they finally reach the sea, they undergo a second transformation. They massively increasingly in size, radically change appearance and their behaviour transforms. This is the sea change.
“Sea changes happen in human life as well. If you read almost any biography or listen to anyone talk about their lives, you are likely to hear about a moment when life really began or they set off down a new track. It might have been when they discovered a passion which would drive the rest of their life. It could have been a life-changing opportunity or a chance meeting with a person who go onto to transform their future.
“Change can take different shapes. Sometimes things are calm and the future is more of a straight line. When this happens, remember to prepare yourself because rougher weather will eventually come. In other moments, things are improving and change is like an upwards slope.
“There are other moments when change is like a u-curve. When this happens, we need to remember that the foundations of success are often laid at low points.
“Then there are moments when change is more like a series of waves. When this happens, we need to remain level-headed when everyone around us is going crazy.
“Finally, there are moments when fundamental sea-changes happens. During these moments, we need to remain open and curious about what is coming and be prepared to explore what comes next.
“The doctor and mindfulness specialist John Kabat Zinn reminds us ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf’. Generations of Bayes graduates have gone on to surf the waves of change very effectively. They have run the worlds largest companies, they have founded successful start ups, they been major investors, they have led non-profits, advised governments, recorded albums, written books, contributed to their communities, raised families and much more besides.
"I know every one of your will help to shape the future in your own way. And I know it will be exciting.
As graduates of Bayes Business School, you have joined our alumni community of more than 50,000 former students from 160 different countries. This community is there to help and support you, so stay in touch.
"So, dear graduates, as you surf the waves of life, I would like you to keep in mind the words of two professional surfers. One is Bethany Hamilton, who said ‘When you get caught in the impact zone, you’ve just got to get back up because you never know what will be over the next wave’. The other is Nat Young, who reminded us ‘If in doubt, paddle out’.
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