As well as the day job and a bit of scribbling about watches, I work with the splendid Speakers for Schools organisation. In February ’17, John Marston, the headteacher at St. Birinus school in Didcot invited me to speak to some of his students. I talked to them about how important it is to fail intelligently. In October John asked me back to present the prizes and school colours – and give a speech – at the school awards evening.
The irony was far from lost on me. I was a sod at school. Not an endearing, cheeky chappie type sod but a nasty, difficult little sod. My teachers would have been very glad indeed when I walked out through the school gates for the last time. To be invited to St B’s to present prizes was wonderful and a real privilege.
I spoke about how success is down to sheer bloody determination, resilience and the small choices you make each day. I talked about my own experience of failure, the mistakes I’d made (and still make) and what I learn from them. I was touched beyond words when, after I’d spoken, the deputy head boy presented me with my own St Birinus’ school colours.
Here’s the speech I gave:
Congratulations to every single one of you. By my calculations, 113 of you this evening will be coming up here to collect your full school colours or an award.
And awards are an industry in themselves nowadays. In fact, had you realised it, you had a choice this evening. You could have been at about ten other awards ceremonies, ranging from the British Energy Awards to the Third Sector Care Awards.
Most of these awards ceremonies are in posh west-end hotels – the British Energy Awards are in the Hilton on Park Lane. There’ll be a smart dinner, probably with champagne. There’ll be a serious national celebrity presenting them.
I think I’d rather be here, thanks.
That’s because these awards this evening are real – they have a real value because they’re for real achievements.
What do I mean?
Well, when you’ve been around long enough to get older and greyer and a bit chubbier, people start asking you to judge awards. This is very flattering indeed, until you realise they want you to pay to be a judge. They also want people to pay to enter the awards. And people to pay to go to the awards ceremony. No such thing as a free lunch, huh?
For me, these awards this evening are worth far, far more. Why? Three reasons…
First, these are awards from people who know you. Who’ve seen you at your best and your worst. They know what you’re capable of, the obstacles you’ve overcome and the hard work you’ve put in.
Second, they’re not for a one-off, flash-in-the-pan single thing you’ve done, but for a consistent level of achievement or effort over the last year – perhaps longer.
And thirdly, some of them are for the contribution you’ve made to the school and your fellow students and to the community.
And, as a far as I know, this evening no-one’s written their own award submission or paid to enter.
For me, that means these school awards and colours are worth more than any Oscar, Bafta or Brit. They’re real – cherish them.
Take your shields away tonight, take a photograph of you holding them and get them framed. Wear your colours with pride. Take them with you when you leave home, perhaps to go to university, and take them with you when you move house in later years. Hang them somewhere you’ll see them everyday as a reminder of what you’ve achieved.
A lot of awards – as well as TV talent shows and movies – sell us the idea that it’s possible to be an overnight success. The idea that, somehow, somewhere, some day someone will spot your natural talent and whisk you onto a stage in front of Simon, Sharon, Nicole and Louis.
You’ll stand in front of the microphone and suddenly discover you’ve got a voice like Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran, or you can play the guitar like Hendrix.
Alternatively, maybe there’ll be a premier league scout who just happens to be passing by as you’re kicking a ball about in Boundary Park.
Suddenly, overnight, you’re choosing which one of your Porsches to drive and which of your mansions you want to spend the weekend at.
But success doesn’t work like this.
There isn’t a single achievement that will suddenly make your name and your fame. There’s an old quote that says “Yes, I’m an overnight success. And it took twenty years.”
The myth of overnight success comes from the idea that somehow, there’s a magical secret to success.
I have good news for you. The ‘magic secret of success’ isn’t actually a secret. It’s not magic either. And it’s not about being lucky – although I find the harder I work the luckier I get.
Even better, I’m really happy to share it with you. No charge. And the good news is that, because it’s not magic or a secret, anyone can do it.
It’s simple – but not easy. The secret of success is the choices you make tonight, tomorrow and every day after that.
Bluntly, success is down, solely, to the work you’re prepared to put in and the choices you’re prepared to make.
Look behind the curtain at those ‘overnight successes’ and you’ll see a succession of choices and small acts that made them what they are today.
Every Olympic gold medal winner had a choice. Chris Hoy is one of the most decorated olympic athletes ever. No-one tapped him on the shoulder one morning and said “Hey Chris, I’m giving you magical cycling powers – you’re now an Olympic athlete.”
His 19 gold medals for cycling came from getting up at 5am every morning, even when it was hacking down with rain and barely above freezing and bashing out 20 mile training rides. Then two, two hour weight sessions every week. Then three hours track training each day. Then getting on an ergometer and doing more training.
Ed Sheeran started singing as a chorister at 4. That would have meant at least two rehearsals a week and two services to sing every sunday – at just 4 years old. That meant that by the time he was just 8, he was already a seasoned public performer and knew how to handle a stage.
These men were not overnight successes.
It’s what you do when you’re faced with the small choices that determines your success. It’s 5am, it’s raining, it’s cold and your alarm’s just gone off. What do you do? If you want to be a serious athlete, you get out of bed, get your kit on and go and train. Even though you’d rather stick pins in your eyes.
It’s Saturday evening and your mates are going out to a party. What do you do? If you want to be a professional musician, you text them and say you’ll be along later. Then you pick up your guitar or sit down at the piano and you knock out another two hours of scales or practice your Grade 8 pieces. Again. Even though you’d rather eat wasps.
Nobody else will ever make you a great footballer, rugby forward or a concert pianist. Just you and the choices you make.
So don’t wait for someone to approve your application to be a runner, go out and start running. At first, it’ll be a mess. It’ll hurt. But keep going. Do those 5 am starts. And, after a while, you’ll find you’re a runner.
Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to be a musician. Go out there and start practicing. Practice until your fingers won’t move any more because they’re too sore. Keep going. After a while, you’ll find you’re a musician.
Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to be an entrepreneur. Get out there, find a niche and a problem to solve and solve it. Then keep selling your idea, even when you get knocked back time and time again. Soon, you’ll find people start calling you an entrepreneur (it’s not a label you should ever claim for yourself).
At the same time, your past does not determine your future.
That sounds like I’m contradicting myself, so what do I mean?
Life is a lot easier if the estate you grew up on was Blenheim or Highclere rather than the local council one. It’s a lot simpler – and you don’t have to work so hard – if you come from a wealthy background. You’ll already have the contacts and the network to help you on your way.
But for those of you who, like me, come from dirt poor backgrounds, those backgrounds don’t mean we can’t achieve. In fact, sometimes having very little to lose is an advantage. We have to work that bit harder to get to the start line, but if we do, there is no reason we can’t succeed in whichever sport, profession, industry or game we choose.
A good example is the kid from what was called a ‘sink estate’ who hated school – a school like this one – so much that he bunked off a double maths lesson one Friday morning, sneaked upstairs to the toilets and blocked every single plughole before turning on the taps and flooding the entire block. That’s the same kid who pushed one of his teachers so far and provoked him so much that he broke a wooden meter ruler over his head in one of those maths lessons. The same kid who, finally, got caught setting fire to the school bin store and got kicked out.
That kid could have gone on to petty crime, vandalism, drugs and ended up with a criminal record. Instead, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who believed in me enough to explain some hard truths to me and who showed me that I didn’t have to take that route.
I started a new school, worked like hell for my exams, was the first in my family to make it to university and then promptly got sacked from my first job after college.
They called it “gross insubordination”. I called it “defending my staff”. I was never really destined to thrive in the corporate world, but I climbed the greasy pole until I finally decided to start my own business. Which, just before we’d reached 10 years of trading, went bust because I hadn’t sold enough and was a lousy, inconsistent boss. So I started again, in my late 40s, and now we’re finally making a success of it. And I’m still striving, still slogging and still trying to make the right, small choices every day.
So remember, the secret to success is actually very simple; though it’s not easy or even, sometimes, a lot of fun. It lies in the small choices you make, the decision to go out for that run, the decision to practice that piece, the decision to put that extra hour of revision in when you’re already shattered.
And your past does not determine your future. Even if you’ve made mistakes so far, you don’t have to keep making them.
And that brings me to the final thing.
You don’t achieve success on your own. You need a team on your side, backing you up and supporting you. That team is made up of your mates, your teachers and your parents.
You might not always get on with your parents. You might not always see eye to eye with them. You might think they’re a bit old and out of touch and don’t remember what it’s like to be your age. But even if it’s sometimes not the easiest of relationships, they’re your closest allies. The funny thing I realise as the older I get, the more my parents actually knew.
Then there are your teachers. They are a remarkable bunch of human beings. It takes a lot to be a teacher. You see them in schooltime in the classroom, but behind every lesson are hours of preparation, evenings of marking and admin, years of training and huge dedication.
You’ll look back in years to come and realise what a massive role they’ve played in shaping your lives for the better.
So, I’d like to finish by asking you all to stand up and to thank your mates, your teachers and your parents with a round of applause,
Well done, to each and every one of you.