To the class of 2017, congratulations. You’ve almost made it through high school. What an achievement. You are standing on the threshold of what some people call real life.
It was only eight years ago, almost to this very day, that I was in your position. And I remember a few things about that day. I remember how I felt as I began to comprehend a life outside of the heavily guarded gates of this school. I remember feeling nostalgic thinking about taking the bus, getting rejected from the school musical, putting a horrendously unhealthy amount of butter on challah roll, faking tummy aches to get out of Hebrew and yanking out my nose ring as soon as Rabbi Kennard entered a room.
Eight years ago, as a soon to be graduate of Mount Scopus College, I remember thinking, bring it on real world, I’ve got this. What I didn’t know at the time is that despite my unwavering enthusiasm and confidence, I didn’t got this. And thus begins my story of failure. Yes, the dreaded, real F word.
After spending my gap year in Israel on Habonim Dror Shnat, I returned home prepared for what I thought would be a wonderful journey of life post high school. I knew that all I ever wanted to do was be part of creating positive impact in the world. But I had no idea how to do that and no clue where to start. Feeling pressure from what was expected of me, I decided to study physiotherapy, something I had never wanted to do but was told would make a fine career.
For two years, every day, I would wake up at precisely 6:43am, groggy eyed and would stumble into my car and commence the one hour drive to university, where I would then spend eight hours learning how to give groin massages and then I would get back into my car and drive one hour back home. It was during these gruelling drives, each day, that I was at my lowest point. I felt inside that I’m driving in a direction that was so far removed from where my inner GPS was telling me to go. But day in and day out, I kept waking up at 6:43am and getting in that car. I couldn’t help but feel that with each kilometer accumulated, I was heading further and further away from myself.
During the winter months I kept a towel in the boot to wipe the fog from my mirrors, otherwise I couldn’t see in front of me. But truth be told, even when it wasn’t foggy, I still couldn’t see. To anyone outside of that car it looked like I was succeeding and I was happy. Because that’s what we tend to do. We put saturated filters over our pictures to fool others into thinking everything is great. And although I was a top student and passing exams with flying colours, I never felt successful.
For years, passing examinations had been the measure of success in my life and that of my peers. But if your only motivation is to fulfil another person’s expectations of you, or simply make money, chances are you won’t feel successful. If you’re blase about what you’re doing, the hard work, those long hours and excruciating drives might yield little but exhaustion. You may try to convince yourself that the direction in life you are driving towards will make you happy, but you probably won’t believe it for very long.
For two years I was striking an uneasy balance between what aspiration I had for myself and what others had for me. And so, making what was the most difficult decision of my life up to that point, I dropped out of university. Needless to say my parents were thrilled.
I do want to, at this stage, make a point in saying that I do not blame my parents or teachers for pushing me into something that I felt was wrong. There is, after all, an expiry date to blaming others for steering you in the wrong direction. The moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you. I saw dropping out of university as my first big failure, but the worst part of it all, was that I had failed at something I didn’t even want to do in the first place. And if you can experience failure doing something that you don’t want to do, you might as well experience failure when doing something you love.
The world is so eager to give you a set of criteria for what failure looks like and what success looks like. But only if you let it. This was the point in my life when I decided to define that set of criteria for myself. I believe that life is not a checklist of acquisition or achievement, although you will meet many people who confuse the two. Life is about daring to dream what really is possible and seeing that you are ready and able to do beautiful things in this world, whatever that means to you.
Using my own criteria to guide me, I found myself working at an organisation called the Australian Jewish Funders. I was working with Jewish philanthropists, people who donate money, time and skills to improving the world, and I was inspiring them to have a greater and more strategic impact. The next year, together with an amazing team, I co-created a program called LaunchPad, A Platform for Jewish Community Innovation. We’ve inspired 350 changemakers, seeded over 14 new projects, funded over 100k to innovation in jewish life in Australia. I even opened the first Jewish co-working space in the country, The LaunchPad Hub. Just a small team of us with a big dream to transform Jewish life have created a movement, and we’ve taken it global.
Just a month ago I returned from facilitating LaunchPad South Africa, which is now successfully in its second year. I went from those dreaded morning drives to finding myself sitting around a table with some of the greatest and most inspiring leaders in the Jewish world.
What I love about what I do now is that I feel like I am part of something that is bigger than myself, part of a community. I now don’t count the hours or kilometers. A lot has happened since the day I decided to take that exit turnoff and dropout of physiotherapy. I did go back and finish my university degree, I think is it important to finish something that you’ve committed to. But I’ve also lived in a commune, worked in Jewish education, moved to New York City, worked in a creative start up and got offered a scholarship to an Ivy League University.
I believe so strongly in the importance of challenging yourself to do things that scare you, despite the risk of failure. You see, taking risks is not just about being in a bad place and daring to reach for something better. Risk taking is actually taking the plunge when things are good and going for greatness.
Just the other day I decided I wanted to challenge myself to do two things every week that scare me, for one whole year. Within a matter of days had over a dozen friend joining me in the challenge. The two things a week can be something as small as making that one phone call or speaking to that one person, or as big as sky diving.
Fear, and fear of failing, are going to play a part in your life. But you get to decide how much and in what way. If you haven’t figured it out yet, dropping physiotherapy actually turned out to be far from a fail, in the end. Every so called failure is a learning opportunity. But If I had been too scared to take the leap and change my direction I may never have found something that ignites my soul.
There is a voice inside each of us that speaks if we let it. But your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. The earlier you get into the habit of taking calculated risks and dreaming big about what you can achieve and what is possible for you, the sooner you will find that one thing that engages your heart as well as your mind.
Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Year 12s, even if you do take risks and find your purpose, remember this: a life that does not impact another life is just mere existence. The questions we need to ask ourselves every night is what did I do for the world today? What did I do today to allow another to breathe just that little bit easier? When too many nights go by when you can’t answer these questions, it’s time to pull over and get out of that car. On the other side of that door there is a world starving for new leadership, ideas and changemakers. The world does not need more grey. The world cannot get enough colour, or rainbows.
When I was 15 my mother had her palm read by a blind Sri Lankan man who told her that of her two children, one would be a lawyer and one would be a doctor. I don’t know how he knew we were Jewish. My brother is a lawyer and very happy. Even when your future seems set in stone, or written in the stars, or engraved in your palm, it’s not. You don’t need to know every step you’re going to take in the next eight years of your life, but you do need to ask yourself how you are going to organise your life around helping others and building community, learn how to really listen to your gut and don’t let anything stand in front of your light. Wishing you all the luck in the world.
(This is an edited version of a speech delivered to the Mount Scopus Year 12 graduating year and secondary school assembly.)