24 April, 2013, Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria
I was asked to give a commencement address at Deakin University today. For various reasons (mainly because i’ve never actually finished Uni myself) it felt like kind of a big deal to me. What follows below is my notes of more or less what i said. I kind of winged it in person…
Deputy Chancellor Meehan, Vice‐Chancellor, Professor Jane den Hollander; academic staff, distinguished guests, graduates, family and friends.
I am not sure why I was invited to be here. Let’s just say there are probably a fair few people far more famous and qualified than me who are otherwise engaged today.
I am sure that at least 80% of you don’t have any idea who I am. So a quick introduction. My name is Marcus. I’m 39 years old. I grew up in Newcastle – a place quite a lot like Geelong I reckon. I live in Melbourne. I have a beautiful wife and an adorable two and half year old son.
Over the course of the last decade I have done everything from run a few major-ish festivals, had a weekly column in a major newspaper for a bit, the ABC gave me a chance to write and present my own TV series. I even got to go to The Logies once.
A few years ago I accidentally started Renew Newcastle, a low budget cultural and creative project that borrows empty buildings and lends them to artists in my home town of Newcastle. It has become a model that has been picked up, adapted, and emulated in cities across Australia and around the world.
I feel lucky now. My life gives me the opportunity to travel. My work seems to have mostly earned the respect of colleagues and communities whose respect I personally value. I am, for the most part, a man who is I content in who I am and who enjoys what I do.
The interesting part is that I got here. I only got to anything like contentment through a process of almost continual failure.
Unlike those of you I am privileged to address today, I have never actually graduated from university. The only thing I feel qualified to talk to about today is failure.
Newcastle in the 1980s and 1990s was itself failing. Unemployment in my age group was more than 40%.
My own father’s business failed, and ultimately through no fault of their own my parents’ expectations for their own lives failed. They didn’t expect it and didnt handle it well. By the time that I was in my early 20s both my parents had killed themselves needlessly and way too young.
As you can imagine it had a profound effect on me.
At the time that I was attempting to study at university. On the upside I had a great time, it kept me distracted engaged and amused and I somehow managed to get sidetracked in every project and every initiative that wasn’t my study from the student paper and student politics to the uni bar. On the downside I was kicked out of my university degree.
I spent about three years unemployed.
It is customary for people at events like this to tell you how they never stopped pursuing their dream. How they had a vision and never let go of it. I didn’t. I actually stopped a lot. I gave up a lot. I went backwards quite a few times. And, truth be told, there never has actually been a big overarching vision. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
Yet somewhere, in the story of why I failed university there is a hint to how i ended up being good at something else. I responded to adversity not always by doing the best, or the right thing, but mostly by doing something.
In those years of unemployment my friends and I experimented in all manner of things. We took on spaces we couldn’t afford to try projects we hadn’t defined, and chase visions we hadn’t particularly thought through. I put on gigs and ultimately started festivals. We didn’t get grants — we didn’t know they existed — we mostly just got our mates and their mates to do stuff, joined it up and called it a festival.
Many of those early projects were terrible. They failed. Many of the gigs lost money. My idea for a small bar failed spectacularly. My events got shut down by over zealous authorities. I made many mistakes costly in coin and reputation.
But every time I stuffed something up I learnt something and became better at it.
Eventually, I made every mistake at everything I wanted to try my hand at and, as a result, I started to become good at it. I became uniquely and particualry good at some things because i was the only one stupid and persistent enough to keep doing them.
Understanding my own mistakes evolved into an understanding of the mistakes and the assumptions of the system i was operating in. Learning why I was failing taught me why others might be failing too. Renew Newcastle, which has now opened more than 100 creative projects in more than 50 empty buildings in that city, at its core is an exercise in removing the very same barriers that I have tripped over myself countless times. I have built on my own mistakes so that others can do what they want to try. Ironically, the main reason I started it was a failed idea for a TV show that never actually happened.
There is a Silicon Valley venture capital cliche that entrepreneurs should “Fail fast, fail cheap, and fail often.” Nothing quite so pithy was ever in my mind in Newcastle in 1995 but failing cheap and often has been one of the few constants in my life.
What are your horizons from today? Who knows? I could not have forseen where I ended up and I actually still have no idea where I’m going.
The only useful observation i can make is that it is not only possible but inevitable, that in order to do most things worth doing you will fail and flail along the way. It is ok. It is important.
The advice from me today is not so much to fail but dont be afraid to fail.
As as you do remember the golden rules of making mistakes: Own them and learn from them; Have another go; and, most importantly. NEVER REPEAT YOUR MISTAKES.
Congratulations to you all on achieving something I haven’t. I wish you well and I hope you find contentment and success.
I hope there is something useful that you can take away my words from today. If not, I’m certain I will be better at it next time.