I know you’re probably thinking who is this old lady, dragged in to bore us to death on speech day and I don’t blame you. If you’ve googled me you’ll be thinking she’s so much smaller, wrinklier, …. Or just not like she looks in her pictures. It’s hard to imagine as you see me standing before you but once upon a time I was just like you, young, full of promise, mad at my parents , annoyed by my brothers and sister , crazy about music and fashion , and desperate to get out into the wide world and take care of myself, rather than depending on what appeared to be pretty useless adults for my well being and happiness. I couldn’t have imagined that one day I’d be the one moaning about an aching shoulder, pretending I like Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran so that my children don’t think I’m a total loser , flattening my son’s enormous quiff by spitting on my hand, much to his horror, fighting with my daughter over the length of her school skirt and the volume dial on Kiss FM in the car – she turns it up, I turn it down – we can amuse ourselves for a whole journey that way!
My job is listed as journalist and presenter but I spend most of my days glued to my computer at my kitchen table, trying to think of advice to give total strangers in my job as the Observer newspapers Agony Aunt, or reading 6 inch piles of research, or buried in a book by an author I don’t necessarily enjoy! Some days, when the writing flows, my job is a pleasure and I appreciate how lucky I am to have a job that allows me to live here, in one of the most beautiful places on earth, SERIOUSLY, on other days I wish I had an office I could escape to, away from my own company and the pressure of filling an empty page. If you Google me of course you won’t see any of that. You’ll see a woman with perfectly blowdried hair in an array of designer dresses, walking up red carpets, presenting award ceremonies, hanging out with even older famous people like Mick Jagger and George Clooney and Meryl Streep and generally leading the kind of life that every magazine and website encourages us to aspire to and the world we live in seems to place a huge value on.
Take my story, which is either a classic Cinderella tale, or something a lot less glitzy. I was born in Norway, I grew up in Ireland and I left school and home at the age of 15. By the age of ten I’d moved country, my parents had split up, I’d been to four different schools, a number which was to rise to 10 by the time I finally had enough of making new friends in new playgrounds and decided to leave altogether. And I wasn’t even ever expelled, it was just that every time my parents moved they changed my school too! Already it’s sounding like a rags to riches tale because I’m standing right here in front of you perceived to be a “successful” person. But in this room today there are plenty of 15 year olds … can you imagine leaving your family behind, packing a few carrier bags and heading off to a city you’ve never visited in a country you’ve never been? That was me when I left for London, shortly after my alcoholic father died at only 44, which may seem an ancient age to you today but struck me as incredibly young when I passed that birthday nearly ten years ago!! It might sound like an exciting adventure to some of you but without Skpe or IM or email or instagram, I was pretty cut off from everyone I cared about.
I came to London with a £20 a week pension from my dad’s work, it definitely wouldn’t even pay the rent today, the address of a squat where I could have a bed and no qualifications at all. So I set to work on a series of jobs that I’m very glad today didn’t become my career. I cleaned a pub and worked behind the bar, I waitressed in many different places , I worked for a very grumpy doctor who was mad that I couldn’t spell the names of his patients diseases and I missed my mum and my brothers and sister a lot. The rest of my story you can read about online if you’re at all interested but you’ll learn much less about me, the person I am and what got me to be standing here today from the list of achievements you’ll find there. I should probably be prouder of what I’ve achieved but truly what I’m proudest of is that I didn’t let my circumstances decide my destiny. Survival was my main goal but along the way I’ve judged the Booker Prize and the BAFTAs, I’ve been to the Cannes Film Festival, the BRITS and the Golden Globes, been given an Honourary Degree by Nottingham University and interviewed Prime Ministers, ex American Presidents and a long line of Oscar winning actors and best selling writers. I’m telling you all this not because I’m showing off but because I want to show you that no matter how your life starts out, or how many things go wrong along the way, no matter if you’re born with an awful lot or a very little, you can be and do anything you dream of with one vital ingredient-and that’s self belief.
I said I arrived here in the UK with nothing but I did actually have something very precious indeed though I didn’t know it at the time. Thanks to my parents, who were flawed in many ways, I had been taught that I was worth something. I wasn’t particularly good at any special thing when I was young, apart from pretending I knew everything, so that’s what I concentrated on. It was very annoying for everyone around me but it also meant that I was very focused on whatever job I was given. It also meant that instead of trying to lose myself in all the bad stuff that you get offered when you’re a young person finding their feet in a big city; drugs, drink and wasting time on people who don’t value you, I decided I was going to survive and thrive. If someone thought I wasn’t capable of a particular job, I would keep knocking on their door until they changed their mind. If someone misjudged me I didn’t rest until I’d forced them to see their mistake. Each knock made me bounce back up because I was determined not to let the circumstances that had led to me leaving home become a prophesy for my future. Most of all I was terrified I might end up homeless, the most common scenario for the majority of young people who run away from home and definitely not the sort of adventure you want to begin your life with.
Lots of people these days write books called ‘misery memoirs’ that tell you all about their tragic childhoods, terrible parents, cruel teachers, impoverished circumstances or evil partners, and some of them make pretty dramatic reading. What they also do is lead you to believe that one thing automatically leads to another. It you’re raised among alcoholics or drug addicts you will become one, if your family struggles financially you’ll never beat the toffs who went to Eton. Society tries to keep us in our places by enforcing those attitudes but I am here today, talking to you, as living proof of the opposite. I left school at 15 with no qualifications and I’ve had dinner with Prince Charles! That certainly wasn’t on my to do list! You may be feeling bad that you don’t yet know what you want to do? You may be worried that you won’t get the grades that you want, or get to go to the university that you want, the cost of going to uni may seem way too scary, you may think your friends are more academic, or more sporty or more successful than you or you may be broken hearted that the person you love isn’t loving you back. I’m here to tell you that none of that matters. I’m afraid the headmaster will shooo me off the stage now but I really mean it. Not because you shouldn’t have ambition, not because you shouldn’t rise above your circumstances, not because you shouldn’t believe you can be anything you want to be, or be hurt when others don’t see you as you wish they would, but because life is very long, so much longer than you imagine now, when you’re at the very beginning, and you will have time to change your mind again and again, to lose interest in one thing and to move onto to another and so long as you are healthy and brave and believe in making the most of this life we are all given, making choices now is not the most important thing!
The most IMPORTANT thing, is that everything you do you invest all your energy and best efforts in doing it. That’s what saved me when I came to London, young, alone and unschooled. It was my belief that nothing was beneath my doing and everything glistening on the future horizon could be mine if I just set my mind to it. What I’ve realised is that only the things we don’t put our energy into are a waste of our time. Everything else is an experience and experience is always good, so long as you survive it. For me the thing I regret every day, and quote as my greatest regret is that I didn’t finish school and go to University. Sure I might still have wound up following a similar career path. You might even think that I’m an example of why you don’t need to go on to further education and there will be those who don’t and it may well be the best choice. BUT I can only tell you about my experience and when I visit a school, a different school I hasten to add and hear a headmaster say “We aren’t too hung up on University for our pupils as it certainly doesn’t guarantee a job” it’s hard to stop myself from leaping from my chair and trying to throttle him. Education is important not just because it’s the best way to ensure that whatever you choose to be you will have a smoother path achieving it but because you will never be at this stage in your life again. A time when even when you feel you are struggling your brain is sucking up knowledge faster then it ever will again. Knowledge that will mean in later life when someone patronises you, or thinks you haven’t got what it takes, will give you the confidence to prove them wrong, will give you the bedrock on which you can build almost any life you care to. Rushing into the adult world as fast as you can is a compulsion that most teenagers have but I can assure you there’s no hurry. You’ll get to my ancient age faster than you can possibly imagine and the longer you can stretch out those luxury years of discovering all the mysteries of the world, the richer your life will be when you have to knuckle down, get a job and face that awful word ‘responsibility’. Not that you can afford to be irresponsible now, there’s one form of responsibility that’s essential to you now and that is personal responsibility. It really doesn’t matter what life throws at you, horrible parents, useless teachers, disloyal friends, lack of money – those are all just annoyances that you can rise above when you take responsibility for yourself and then, gradually the world around you.
There’s an election coming up which most of you can’t yet vote in, so may seem of little interest but politics is something that shapes our world and none of us later to gain knowledge, to gobble it up, even if you don’t know what you want it for, or what use it will be to you. You are incredibly lucky to be at a great school, surrounded by teachers who have ambition for you, who want to lift you up, not push you down. You have the chance to fill your head with stuff you may never even need and if you don’t grab it with both hands now, and let nothing stand between you and your determination to understand the world better, the chance will slip away from you forever. Because of my father dying, because of lots of tricky things happening in my family when I was a teenager, I gave up on that chance and there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not sad about that.
Of course you can get a job if you don’t go to University but only a crazy fool would turn down the chance of having even more time before they have to knuckle down to a job and all the responsibility that falls on your shoulders when you step out into the world. You’re all in a rush now I’m sure, a rush to taste the world on your own terms, to be independent, to follow your own path but you have no idea how long the road ahead is and how grateful you’ll be later that you lingered in your youth, savouring every single moment . There will be time to fall in love, (many times probably),there will be time to have fun and behave badly and hang out and make friends and all the stuff that seems desperately important right now. But there will never be a time again where you are really only expected to do one thing and that is plunge yourselves into a sea of knowledge and swallow as much of it as you can!
One of the most important skills you’ll need to learn, in a world on information overload, is how to separate truth from lies, the important from the merely frivolous and how to spot when you are being manipulated and deceived, whether it’s by adults (truly we’re not perfect), media or politicians. That’s the thing about the online world in our global village, it really doesn’t give us the full picture and whether it’s bringing the miseries of the world to our door, or the impossible glamour of A list lives, it’s not nearly as representative of real life as we like to pretend.
We need bus drivers and neuro scientists, engineers and website technicians. Nurses and doctors, painters and sculptors, Olympians and sports coaches, what we really, really don’t need, is any more celebrities! I’ve tasted the pleasures of what’s sold to you as the fantasy of famous lives and I can tell you now, I’d swap everyone of my 48.7k Twitter followers for just an hour with one of my three best friends. The people who really love you are a million zillion times more important than anyone out there in the web-universe, which may introduce you to a global community but will never replace the real hands that are held out to help you up when life knocks you down.
Just finally a note of caution, when I was growing up I did many stupid things, make mistakes about who I could trust and let myself down by being stupid drunk or just plain stupid more times than I care to remember. The difference today is that every single thing you do online leaves a trail, a history that you can’t ever walk away from, so my advise is to make your mistakes in real life, not via dump pictures doing silly things and writing lines you’ll regret and sending them out into a world hungry for our misfortunes and all too eager to reflect those moments back to us when we think we’ve grown up and moved on. The internet is an enormous force for good when it’s used wisely and a terrible place to grow up in public. Spare yourself the humiliation of dragging your mistakes around on a google search.